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Uncertainty Over Regional Power Dynamics as Assad Makes Rare Visit to Tehran

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in Tehran on May 8 to meet with both the Supreme Leader and the president of the Iranian regime. The unannounced visit was one of very few trips Assad has taken since the outbreak of civil war in 2011 which aimed to overthrow his dictatorship. Both sides attached a great deal of importance to Sunday’s visit.

The Iranian regime took advantage of the Syrian conflict to expand its footprint in that country, particularly through the development of Shiite militant proxies that typically swear allegiance to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. However, this strategy for regional force projection has proven politically fraught in recent years, with large-scale protests breaking out in both Lebanon and Iraq to express discontent over what many viewed as an increasingly outsized Iranian regime meddling.

Khamenei arguably demonstrated the intention to get ahead of similar trends in Syria when he used his meeting with Assad to portray the Iran-backed militants as having provided a net benefit to the Syrian nation. The state-run Tasnim News Agency quoted Khamenei as saying that “everybody now looks at Syria as a power” and “the respect and credibility of Syria is now much more than before.”

For his part, Assad echoed this sentiment, describing Iran-Syria relations as a counter to American and Israeli influence in the region and declaring that the United States is now “weaker than ever.” Such commentary is typical of Tehran’s own foreign policy propaganda.

The Iranian regime has emerging alliances with other US adversaries, including China and especially Russia. Assad’s visit to Tehran comes at a time of uncertainty regarding the operational capabilities of that alliance since Russia remains mired in a war of its own making and continues to face surprisingly strong opposition from Ukraine.

In particular, the Assad visit comes in the wake of unconfirmed reports that Russia is moving some of its troops out of Syria, where they fought alongside Iranian regime forces in defense of the Assad regime. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March, the volume of Russian forces in Syria was estimated at around 10,000 personnel, mostly stationed at 12 bases. Experts determined that their presence not only provided Assad with additional security but also gave some degree of cover and plausible deniability to the Iranian regime as it sought to develop a permanent foothold in certain areas.

The departure of Russian forces from Syria would most likely force Damascus and Tehran to either contend with anti-Assad elements rushing into the power vacuum or direct entities like Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to take over for Russia on the regime’s behalf.

Insofar as the Iranian and Syrian regimes would both seemingly benefit from a diffuse and ally-supported Iranian presence throughout Syria, it would appear that a Russian draw-down would increase the value of a broadly constituted “Resistance front” of the sort that Khamenei bragged about in his meeting with Assad. Indeed, he and other Iranian officials have been crowing about Iran’s supposed expansion of economic and defensive relations in the surrounding region. However, their statements remain in competition with numerous reports of fellow Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates expanding their own alliances and normalizing relations with Israel for the explicit purpose of countering Iran’s regional influence.

On Monday, state-run Mehr News Agency published an article proclaiming the regime’s readiness to expand and promote trade with Lebanon, while independent news outlets quoted Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh as saying that the Emir of Qatar would be visiting Iran soon, after which the mullahs’ President Ebrahim Raisi would reciprocate with his own visit to the Arab nation.

The Mehr article also evoked Tehran’s ongoing commitment to financing and supporting militant proxies, insofar as it proclaimed that the Ministry of Labor would “transfer technical know-how and experience to the Lebanese government and Hezbollah Resistance Movement.” Hezbollah remains the most firmly established of Iran’s various terrorist proxy groups, as its domestic role has developed to the point of effectively constituting an alternative government in some respects. This fact helped to fuel the protests last year which forced a change in the composition of the Lebanese government, but Hezbollah’s power structure remains intact despite the pressure.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials remain publicly confident that Qatar represents a potential fracturing of the Saudi-led anti-Iran alliance. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain severed ties with Qatar to protest Qatari officials urging greater inclusion of the regime in discussions over regional affairs. That crisis ultimately passed without much noticeable adjustment to Qatar’s stance regarding Iran and to this day the latter is praising relations between the two countries while condemning other Arab nations as willing pawns of “Zionists” and “the global arrogance.”

However, Qatar’s position is not so favorable to Iran as it is neutral in various affairs concerning the region and the Emir’s forthcoming visit is apparently further evidence of this.

The visit closely coincides with that of Enrique Mora, the European coordinator of talks aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal between the Iranian regime and six world powers. Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani will also be visiting Germany, Britain, and other European states afterward and he reportedly shares European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s ambition to promote a “middle ground” in the talks, in contrast to Iran’s longstanding demand that the US simply capitulate on issues that remain unresolved.

Chief among those issues is the IRGC’s current designation as a foreign terrorist organization, which Tehran is demanding the White House revoke. The argument for that measure has gained very little traction outside of the Iranian regime, even among supposedly friendly nations like Qatar. And if the IRGC ends up expanding its force projection by backfilling Russian positions in Syria, the backlash against the IRGC’s potential delisting will surely grow even stronger.

Dr. Alejo Vidal-Quadras

Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)