Thursday, Reuters reported that the Syrian democratic opposition had urged the US and its allies to increase pressure on the Iranian regime to cease its interference in the Syrian Civil War and its support of the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Specifically, Nasr Hariri of the Syrian Negotiation Commission spoke at a meeting in Brussels to suggest that US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal could open the door to just such an increase in pressure.
“We cannot separate one from another, the nuclear program from Tehran’s missile program and Iran’s malign behavior in our region,” he said, noting that “the role of Iran is getting bigger and bigger, at the expense of our people.”
Hariri’s comments came directly in the wake of Assad decrying US forces in Syria as “foreign invaders” and urging their removal. Hariri’s response naturally pointed out that both Iran and Russia are equally deserving of this description, having been embraced by the Assad regime but opposed by the people who are suffering as a result of their defense of that regime. Assad’s government was widely expected to fall in the early days of the now seven-year civil war, before the tide was turned by foreign intervention, first by Iran on the ground and then by Russia via air support.
Iran’s support for the cause has generally appeared unshakeable, although there has been much speculation that Iranian and Russian interests in Syria could diverge in a way that would pressure Russia to rein in its ally. This speculation has been bolstered by international discussions of the crisis and attempted ceasefire agreements, which were generally enforced by Russia but violated by Iran-backed militias intent on destroying the democratic opposition to Assad ahead of any political solution.
The prospective Iran-Russia divergence was in the news again on Thursday when the Associated Press reported upon discussions that Russian leaders had with the government of Israel, which is also allied with Russia but is staunchly opposed to any permanent military presence in Syria for Iran or its paramilitary proxies. The AP quoted Russian state media as saying that Moscow had expressed commitment to an agreement that would involve the removal of all Iranian forces from areas near the Syrian border with Israel.
The report even went so far as to say that the Iranians had already begun pulling out of southern Syria, although it also acknowledged that Iranian officials had publicly denied this. If the reports are nonetheless true, it would arguably be evidence of the Islamic Republic succumbing to mutual pressure from its close ally and its adversaries. Meanwhile, that pressure – much of it coming from American sanctions – is also having an impact in other areas.
New and re-imposed sanctions have followed from Trump’s pullout of the Iran nuclear deal, and these measures have been accompanied by warnings for European businesses to steer clear of pursuing the investments in Iran that were expected to grow out of that deal. Reports are presently accumulating of the relevant companies’ responses to that ultimatum, and they indicate that the Islamic Republic is on pace to lose significant investments if it does not acquiesce to American demands for a more comprehensive agreement.
Iranian officials have naturally tried to downplay this trend. With regard to a planned offshore gas exploration deal with the French energy giant Total, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said that the company still has two months to secure a waiver from the United States. But Total has previously said that it would likely abandon the plans if no such waiver was forthcoming. The hardline strategy adopted by the Trump administration is unlikely to accommodate any such waiver.
Zanganeh went on to suggest that the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation would step in to fill Total’s shoes if the latter pulled out. But this appears to disregard the fact that Iran is even at risk of losing investments from its close allies. Al Jazeera pointed out that even Russia’s second largest oil producer, Lukoil, has responded to the threat of US sanctions by putting its plans to invest in Iran on hold.
This speaks to the reason why, according to UPI, the Iranian Oil Minister recently declared that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries should use its June meeting to prioritize measures that would protect its member states from Western sanctions. But the prospects for Iran’s success in this self-serving endeavor may be undermined by Zanganeh’s parallel announcement that the Islamic Republic will accept no limitations on its oil production, even at a time when the other OPEC members are abiding by mutual output caps aimed at stabilizing global prices.
UPI points out that Tehran is “busy courting European, Russian and Chinese leaders for continued support” of the agreement that Trump pulled out of in May. Yet, support for that agreement does not necessarily equate to defiance of US sanctions, especially in view of the fact that those sanctions are still escalating.
On Thursday, Al Jazeera pointed out that the US Treasury had just announced new, human rights-related sanctions targeting the notorious Evin Prison, the paramilitary Ansar-e Hezbollah, the president of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and two developers of communications technology aimed at supplanting the popular Telegram messaging app, that was credited with facilitating mass protests all across Iran in December and January.