Although US President Donald Trump recently floated the idea of a pullout of US forces who has served as advisors to the Kurdish Democratic Forces and other pro-democracy rebel groups, the White House also ordered air strikes on Syria last weekend as punishment for the use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad. This has led to a predictable escalation in the war of words between Washington and Tehran.
Nonetheless, Al Jazeera maintains that the two sides are mutually averse to the idea of turning that war of words into a shooting war. This aversion has been on display throughout recent years as American forces declined to directly target the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or even to generally target the pro-Assad militias supported and directed by the IRGC. Meanwhile, Iran has not directed those Syrian militias to target American forces, even though some have publicly vowed to ultimately oust the US from the region.
At the same time, Al Jazeera points to a clash between Iran-backed militias and US forces in May 2017 as evidence that there could be an uptick in low-level conflict as the two sides “test the boundaries” of their competing roles. It is also clear that Iran and the US intend to persist in efforts to limit each other’s influence over the conflict. And within the Trump administration, this impulse can be expected to intensify following such developments as the appointment of John Bolton to the post of National Security Advisor and the declaration by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley that curtailing Iran’s entrenchment is a major foreign policy priority.
Such statements suggest that the US is not about to blink in this contest of wills. But there are similar indications coming out of Tehran, which has struck a defiant tone in public communications not only regarding the American role in the Middle East but also regarding other contentious matters like the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The Algemeiner reported on Friday that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned of “unpleasant consequences” for the US in the event that it pulls out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action next month. The comments were widely disseminated on Iranian state television as the country awaits the May 12 deadline imposed by the Trump administration on European partners whom he expects to “fix the terrible flaws” in the deal.
Previously, various Iranian officials including Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, have warned that the Islamic Republic might respond to the re-imposition of US sanctions by ramping up nuclear enrichment activities to levels far beyond those that were maintained before the JCPOA went into effect. It is all but certain that Zarif’s more recent remarks were intended to recall attention to these threats, but the implication of a broader response cannot be ruled out.
This is especially true in light of Iran’s clear signals in recent days that it is committed to entrenchment in Syria, and also to pushing back against the persistence of an American role in the conflict. While still not welcoming direct military conflict with the global superpower, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei said in a recent speech that Tehran and its allies should be prepared for an “intelligence war” aimed at curtailing foreign espionage and subversion. As part of the same remarks, which were posted on Khamenei’s official website and summarized by Newsweek, the supreme leader also called for Iran’s partners to form a united front against adversaries led by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
This seeming call-to-arms was arguably underscored on Thursday when Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami visited Baghdad to promote security ties and to bolster the work of an intelligence-sharing network established there in 2015, with participation from Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Russia. As Newsweek notes, the visit coincided with the unusual move by the Iraqi government to carry out airstrikes against rebel positions in Syria, in a potential sign of closer cooperation with Iran and with the Assad regime over the prosecution of that war.
As well as meeting with the Iraqi head of military intelligence, Hatami also had discussions with representatives of Syria and Russia, at a time when both of these countries are facing – and mutually pushing back against – rising levels of pressure from the West. While this month’s airstrikes by the US, France, and the UK were motivated by Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the previous month saw collective efforts to sanction Russia over a similar issue, the use of a chemical agent in the poisoning of a Russian national on British soil.
On Wednesday, Alireza Jahangir, the Iranian delegate to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, defended Russian against such efforts in a speech that could also be seen as an expression of the Iranian regime’s willingness to overlook chemical incidents involving its other ally. Mehr News Agency quoted Jahangir as saying that Western powers had used the Chemical Weapons Convention as “an instrument to confirm [their] political intentions.”
He went on to say that disputes over any issues involving chemical weapons “should be dealt with through the existing mechanisms and provisions of the CWC,” thereby underscoring Iran’s opposition to efforts by the US and its allies to use either sanctions or airstrikes to punish Assad or his supporters for the use of such weapons.
That opposition may be motivated not only by Iran’s commitment to anti-Western allies or to its efforts at regional expansion, but also by fears over the broader implications of American and European measures that challenge Iran’s dominance in Syria. This was the position taken by a recent editorial at the American Thinker, in which human rights advocate Hassan Mahmoudi declared that the US-led airstrikes had a significant impact on the Iranian regime as well as on Assad.
The article pointed to recent anti-government protests in Iran, which spanned the entire country in January but have continued in various localities up to the present day. Participants in many of those protests have been heard to chant, “Forget about Syria; think of us,” and to disregard regime propaganda portraying the US as the enemy of the Iranian people. In light of this messaging, Mahmoudi concludes that the recent airstrikes served to underscore the cost of Iran’s involvement in Syria, and thus to encourage protests against it.
This goes to show that there are domestic risks for Iran in the event that the Syrian conflict leads to further escalation of tensions with the US. But it also highlights the potential payoff for the US of policies currently being advocated by opponents of the Iranian regime, including newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton and the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which he supports. In their view, a concerted effort to push Iran out of Syria would force the clerical regime to face rising levels of domestic dissent, thereby compelling it to either reform or face overthrow.