In the zero-sum game against Iran in Syria, Israel’s successful military action Wednesday night is seen as an Iranian loss. But because of the difference between Israel’s strategic doctrine and Tehran’s, the blow Iran suffered could have far-reaching consequences.
For Israel, this was a move aimed at blocking Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. It was a tactical step that could have strategic consequences, but for now, Israel is the one controlling the height of the flames.
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For Iran, Syria isn’t just one more toehold but part of its strategy of influence in the Middle East. It’s a focal point of its battle against Saudi Arabia, it’s another front with Israel in addition to Lebanon, it gives Iran the image of a Mideast power that’s party to solving the Syrian conflict, and it’s the theater of Iran’s political fight with Russia and Turkey over the spoils of Syria’s civil war and the shape of the postwar regime.
A blow to Tehran's military capability, much less its image, will therefore force it to recalculate its policy, especially in light of the threats it faces from the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal.
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Iran suffers from military inferiority in Syria. It doesn’t have an air force that can operate in Syria’s skies, the Syrian antiaircraft batteries aren’t sophisticated enough to deal with the Israeli threat, and Iranian forces on the ground rely mainly on hired militias based on Afghani, Iraqi and Pakistani fighters, whose military prowess is lacking. Cooperation between Iran and Syria doesn’t include a Russian commitment to protect Iranian forces, and Syrian President Bashar Assad prefers the Russian presence to that of the Iranians; he even shows this when awarding concessions.
The military plan of the Quds force’s Qassem Soleimani, which includes establishing a “Shi’ite axis” from Tehran to Damascus via Baghdad, is still far from implemented. And the tactical moves that were designed to build a Hezbollah-like organization or organizations in Syria aren’t turning into a threat.
Not only military inferiority will affect Iran’s response to Israel. Also, and perhaps mainly, the campaign for the nuclear agreement’s survival and the need to maintain the image of a nonaggressive country will dictate the future of the Syrian front, at least in the short term. Also playing a key role is the Iranian internal arena, which is definitely turbulent.
“At a time when the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are boasting about their nuclear infrastructure, we’re celebrating the pouring of cement into the heart of the reactor in Arak. The agreement damaged Iran,” according to a conservative Iranian group’s post showing UAE citizens rejoicing at the dedication of their nuclear power reactor.
In another post the conservatives showed the Iranian environment minister, an associate of President Hassan Rohani, dining in Malaysia with glasses of wine on the table. According to the post, the minister danced and enjoyed himself at the expense of Iranian taxpayers, as opposed to the modest lifestyle of the conservatives. “Iran will be attacked soon,” predict the opponents of the nuclear agreement. “The agreement didn’t make Iran safer” – only force, not negotiations, will deter Iran’s enemies, the conservatives say.
Iranian social media
This is only a small sample of comments on Iranian social networks after the signing of the nuclear deal. A study by Georgetown’s Ariane Tabatabai published by the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists presents the challenge to Rohani with the United States out of the agreement. Tabatabai surveyed the social networks that are ostensibly forbidden in Iran but still provide a lively platform, bypassing instructions like those from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who forbade publication of criticism of the nuclear agreement.
The conservatives’ reaction began one day after the announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump, when this week the Iranian parliament, by a large majority, passed a “law of suitable steps to ensure mutuality after the United States pullout from the agreement.” According to the law, the government must receive guarantees from the five other countries that signed the agreement that they’ll honor the deal.
The negotiations with the European countries that signed the accord – Germany, Britain and France – will continue for a month at most. If these three fail to provide the guarantees, or if they provide the guarantees and later violate them, Tehran will order the renewal of uranium enrichment at a fast pace.
This is mainly declarative legislation that leaves the government a lot of room to negotiate with the European countries. (Russia and China are still considered countries whose adherence to the agreement Iran doesn’t have to worry about.)
The law contains no description of the guarantees, nor does it list the commitments that Iran must make for such guarantees to be signed, or say whether Iran will demand a penalty clause or compensation if these countries violate the agreement. But the law makes clear that Iran still sees itself as committed to the nuclear deal, though for that it must know that it has partners.
Despite Khamenei’s declarations that Trump made a mistake and the United States will pay for leaving the agreement, the fear that the deal will collapse forces Iran to prepare for the many consequences of Washington’s decision. An example is the explanation by Mohammad Meshkinfam, managing director of the Pars Oil and Gas Company, that if France’s Total withdraws from the project to develop Phase 11 of the Pars oil field in the Persian Gulf, the Chinese partner in the French-Iranian-Chinese consortium will continue the $5 billion effort. And if China withdraws as well, Iran will complete the project.
It seems that other major agreements that were signed with foreign companies will be recast, in an attempt to both keep these companies on board and fix high compensation in the event of a withdrawal. But Iran isn’t at all sure that the foreign companies will agree to relaunch negotiations. That’s only one aspect of the headaches facing Iran due to the U.S. pullout.
The economic card
Although the U.S. decision has no direct consequences for Iranian involvement in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, it’s likely to harm Iran’s relations with dozens of other countries with which Iran has commercial ties in South Africa, North Africa, South America and Turkey. Iran’s activities in Iraq and Lebanon began years before the nuclear agreement and took place during the period of international sanctions.
Turkey even bypassed the sanctions against Iran for a long time and paid for Iranian oil in gold, while Iran remains an important trade partner. Lebanon and Iraq are serving as anchors for the Iranian penetration of the Arab Middle East, and in both countries Tehran has been very successful, including this month’s Lebanese elections in which Hezbollah and its supporters gained at the expense of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi protégé.
Iraq is the Iran’s third largest trade partner, with 16 percent of Iraqi foreign trade, after Turkey and China. In addition, Iran has direct influence on some of the Shi’ite parties in Iraq and sponsors the Shi’ite militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces, that fought effectively against the Islamic State in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Iran’s military and economic involvement in Syria, which costs Iran billions of dollars, has granted it the status of a key partner in the Russian-led diplomatic process to solve the Syrian crisis. This status isn’t expected to change even if the nuclear agreement is canceled and despite Iran’s disputes with Russia and Turkey over the military campaign in Syria.
Iran is also competing with Saudi Arabia over influence in the Middle East and Asia among Sunni groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This competition doesn’t come cheap, but after the nuclear agreement Iran accumulated foreign-currency reserves of about $130 billion, money with which it can continue to fund most of its activities around the world, as well as the work of the government.
The real pressure will begin if it turns out that the U.S. sanctions significantly curb oil exports, but in the meantime the Iranian treasury can benefit from rising oil prices, which this week approached $70 and could climb further.
Another fear is the ramifications of the U.S. decision for Iranian politics. The West and Israel hope that the decision will spark a civil rebellion against the regime and even lead to its downfall. But it was enough to see the MPs from all quarters supporting the draft bill requiring the government to conduct swift negotiations with the European countries, or read the commentary in newspapers close to Rohani, to be impressed by the solidarity against the decision.
In the meantime, no voices have been calling on the government to accede to the U.S. demands or reopen the nuclear agreement. In addition, paradoxically, the conservatives are leveraging Rohani’s failure to keep his promises to the public on the economy and human rights to “prove” to the reformists that the agreement and its authors in the Iranian leadership failed.
But this is dangerous rhetoric because it could also undermine Khamenei, who let negotiations achieve the agreement and approved the signing. Khamenei already made it clear this week that he doesn’t believe the European countries, just as he doesn’t believe the United States, and that Iran must rely only on itself.
That’s a clear signal of his intention to renew the “resistance economy,” which means cutbacks and an opportunity to intervene in the composition of Rohani’s government. It even means making heads roll in a way that lets the blame be laid for the new normal on the president, keeping Khamenei out of the firing line.