The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Tehran prepares for post-war Syria
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.]
Forecast: The Iranian regime is setting conditions to exploit international Syrian reconstruction efforts to mitigate the effects of U.S. economic pressure and deepen its regional military entrenchment. The regime has engaged Syrian President Bashar al Assad in recent months to facilitate the entrance of Iranian companies into Syria, likely including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) economic wing, Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters. The IRGC will likely attempt to use deepening economic involvement in Syria as a way to generate new revenue streams to fund its regional activities as U.S. sanctions force the Iranian government to husband shrinking revenues to maintain essential domestic programs and defend the currency from extreme devaluation.
Iran is facilitating the participation of Iranian companies in Syria’s reconstruction. First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri on January 28 *headed Iran’s most senior political delegation to Damascus, Syria since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Jahangiri *finalized major economic agreements during the visit including infrastructure, housing, and energy projects. These included contracts for Iranian companies *to construct power plants and 200,000 housing units. The Syrian and Iranian regimes aim for Iranian companies to play a significant role in reconstruction efforts as Assad regains control of more of Syria’s territory.
The Iranian regime also intends for some of these companies, potentially those tied to the IRGC, to help it secure a *land bridge from Iran to Latakia port in western Syria. Jahangiri discussed linking Iran’s rail line infrastructure to Latakia during his visit to Damascus. The transit route would run through Abu Kamal near the Syrian-Iraq border. Recent negotiations between senior Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi military officials resulted in plans to re-open the al Qaim border crossing, just south of Abu Kamal. The Iraqi government closed the al Qaim border crossing in 2013. The Iranian regime will also take control of Latakia port itself. Assad will reportedly lease management of the port to an unnamed Iranian company in October 2019, granting Iran a strategic access point to the Mediterranean Sea and Syria. Talks over the deal reportedly *began when Assad paid an unannounced visit to Tehran on February 25. The IRGC Quds Force *planned Assad’s visit and meetings and ensured its commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, was present for all of Assad’s engagements. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was pointedly excluded from any meetings during this visit, prompting his resignation (subsequently withdrawn), but emphasizing the degree of control the IRGC is exerting over the future of Iran’s relationship with Syria even beyond military affairs.
Regime- and IRGC-controlled companies will win many of these economic contracts. Soleimani’s presence in the Latakia port talks suggests that the IRGC will participate in the operation of the port, if not control it completely. Iranians officials have confirmed that the regime-tied business conglomerate MAPNA Group *won a power plant construction project in Latakia and that Khatam ol Anbia Construction Headquarters will *participate in other economic projects in Syria. Khatam ol Anbia is involved in various sectors in Iran, including but not limited to port services, oil and gas, drilling, construction, telecommunications, and financial services. The regime has historically *awarded the organization highly lucrative contracts and allowed the IRGC to monopolize the domestic market. The organization’s head even *accompanied Jahangiri during his visit to Damascus, indicating that Khatam ol Anbia may participate in either or both the housing units construction and rail line development projects.
It is not yet confirmed that an IRGC-owned company such as Khatam ol Anbia will also manage Latakia port, but the IRGC will certainly push for it to do so. The IRGC has a history of leveraging its domestic influence to advance its parochial interests. The IRGC previously prevented transnational flights from landing at the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran in 2005 after former President Mohammad Khatami’s administration *awarded operation of the airport to a Turkish-Austrian consortium instead of the IRGC. The Khatami administration was forced to abrogate the contract thereafter. The IRGC perceived that the foreign companies operating the facility would hinder its ability to illicitly traffic goods and weapons through flights there. The IRGC reportedly proceeded to smuggle billions of dollars’ worth of goods through the location after Iran broke the contract with the foreign consortium. The IRGC likely desires the Latakia port contract for similar reasons and will exert its influence to obtain it. The regime could award the contract to an ostensibly non-IRGC-controlled company. Khatam ol Anbia is an expansive conglomerate with numerous levels of subsidiaries which could manage the port.
The IRGC would leverage economic gains in Syria to advance its malign interests. Latakia port would provide the IRGC a vital medium for illicit trade and smuggling to mitigate mounting U.S. economic pressure on Iran and the IRGC. International aid and reconstruction funds will soon begin to enter Syria as the conflict dies down, granting the IRGC the lucrative opportunity to pocket some of these funds and materials. Housing, power plant, and rail line contracts provide added revenue to the Guards. IRGC control of the port and development of the land bridge would also facilitate its transfer of fighters, weapons, and funds throughout the region. This would provide the regime an additional means to circulate personnel and material support in and out of Syria. These efforts in unison will further advance Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.