May 28, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Iran Doubles Down in the Fight for the Middle East


The Deputy Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Ghani, finally admitted on May 23 that Tehran has been training the Houthi rebels in Yemen. For those watching the situation closely, the Quds Force’s (and certainly Lebanese Hezbollah’s as well) direct role in the Yemeni conflict was expected, but Ghani’s public confirmation was not. We are unlikely to see another heroic publicity campaign with Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani rallying and guiding Houthi forces—as we did with Iran’s Shia proxies in Iraq after the fall of Mosul to ISIS last year. Ghani’s announcement signals, though, a new willingness for Iran to deepen its military involvement in Yemen, even as Tehran voices support for negotiations. Nor was this Iran’s only move in the past two weeks to show how far it will—or must—go in its multi-front regional contest with ISIS, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States.

Tehran’s Ramadi reaction:

In Iraq, the fall of Ramadi to ISIS on May 17 sent shockwaves through Tehran just as it did in Baghdad and in Washington. As Iraqi forces attempt to retake the city, Iranian-backed Shia proxies and militia groups will now take a leading role despite fears of backlash from the Sunni population. The Iraqi and Iranian Ministers of Defense signed a new defense agreement on May 19 to accelerate joint actions against ISIS. Soleimani declared on May 24 that now only Iran and its partners in Iraq and Syria are fighting ISIS after ripping the U.S. effort against the Sunni extremists in both countries. Iran’s Minister of Interior Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli reiterated that Tehran would intervene directly if ISIS gets to within 40 kilometers of their border with Iraq.

Support for an embattled Assad:

The loss of key areas of northwestern and southern Syria to the Al Nusra front and other rebel groups and ISIS’ westward advance into Palmyra has put severe strain on Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The Syrian president’s weakening position has raised speculation that Iran is more open to a political solution that could de facto partition the country or even remove Assad. A visit last week to Damascus by the Supreme Leader’s Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Ali Akbar Velayati left little doubt of Iran’s commitment to Syria however. Velayati praised Assad for maintaining resistance against Israel and other interfering foreign powers,stating “Syria is in a better situation and has grown more powerful compared to four years ago.” Perhaps most importantly, the Syrian regime announced Iran had extended a crucial credit line to shore up its currency and signed several energy agreements. Velayati then met with Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and other senior Lebanese officials in Beirut, presumably to discuss strategy to defend Lebanon and sustain Hezbollah’s fight in Syria.

The neighborhood goes south:

I have argued before that the pressure on Iran’s allies, the darkening sectarian climate, the rise of Sunni extremists, and instability after the Arab Spring have become Tehran’s dominant security concerns. The worsening regional situation has led Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rouhani to pursue negotiations and a degree of de-escalation with the United States. On May 24 Mohsen Rezaei’s took the extraordinary measure of returning to military service eighteen years after he retired from command of the IRGC. His statement highlightedconcerns of regional instability: "I asked the Supreme Leader to appear in my IRGC uniform again and he was proud…and approved. One of the reasons why I wear this uniform is that we veterans…have a big burden. With the current situation in the region, all eyes are on Iran. The world wants to know what the fate of Iraq and Syria will be."

Iran still wants a nuclear deal, but the serious threats it faces from ISIS and a more coherent and assertive Arab leadership—and the opportunities this chaos can provide to expand Iran’s influence—are the real drivers of Iranian foreign policy right now. Even if this pushes Iran towards more temporary cooperation with us against ISIS in Iraq, Washington should not underestimate how far Tehran will go to secure its interests in Baghdad, defend Damascus,  press Riyadh…or kick the United States out of the region.