In the first place, conflict escalated in both Syria and Iraq, thereby potentially contributing to Iran’s efforts to justify its contributions to the fighting. At least 31 people were killed on Thursday in suicide bombings attributed to the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces were reported to be clearing areas outside of the IS stronghold of Fallujah, in advance of another major offensive.
While the AP report attributes the military operations almost entirely to the Iraqi forces, this characterization of the fighting has been widely disputed by experts and commentators including representative of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Those who are closely monitoring Iran’s involvement in the regional conflicts tend to emphasize that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and various Shiite militant proxies have taken on the lion’s share of responsibilities in both Syria and Iraq, effectively sublimating local authorities to Tehran.
In recent years, Iranian officials have boasted that the Islamic Republic has taken control of the capitals of at least four Arab countries: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. During that same time, various reports have emerged to at least partly justify this claim, highlighting the uninhibited presence of the IRGC and other Iranian apparatus in those countries militaries, governments, or in the case of Yemen, successful local rebellions.
One such report was published by The Tower on Thursday. It detailed what the author called “Iran’s long con in Iraq,” and explained that the “Popular Mobilization” against IS militants in Iraq is overwhelmingly loyal to Tehran, above and beyond Baghdad. The report explained that at least one leading commander in this collective force has declared that he would overthrow the Iraqi government if ordered to do so by the Iranian supreme leader.
Such declarations of loyalty lead The Tower and other outlets to conclude that the continued Iranian presence in the fight against the Islamic State threatens to secure long-lasting Iranian dominance of the political situation in Iraq and Syria even after IS is gone.
Continued support from Russia would certainly help Iran to secure this long-term goal. But the likelihood of that support has come into question recently. The US and other Western powers have been vying with Iran at international negotiations over the future of Bashar al-Assad, for whom the Iranians refuse to consider an alternative. Russia has maintained a similar, but slightly softer position, and it has been suggested that Western negotiating strategies might focus on attempting to exploit divisions between Iranian and Russian interests in the region.
Early this week, the international media suggested that Israel had made its own contributions to this strategy when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow and apparently urged the Russians to help prevent Iran and its Lebanese terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, from securing a foothold that would pose a threat to the Jewish state. Israel and Russia have enjoyed increasingly positive relations in recent years, and this has been seen as a potential contributor to future divisions between Iran and Russia over the Syrian crisis.
It may be the case that by hosting the Russian defense minister on Thursday, Iran was trying to counteract some of the effects of the recent discussions between Netanyahu and Russian officials in Moscow. This explanation of Iran’s motives may also be supported by the fact that the AP reported Iran had made somewhat more moderate public statements in the wake of the meeting, expressing tentative support for a cease-fire in Syria.
The content of Iran’s statement seems to suggest a persistent desire to control the terms of any negotiated solution. That is to say, when Iran declares an interest in a ceasefire that “doesn’t help terrorists to get more powerful,” it is understood that “terrorists” refers to any opponent of the Assad regime, regardless of whether they are affiliated with the Islamic State or the moderate rebel groups that are supported by the US and its allies.
Nonetheless, any public declaration of support for a ceasefire suggests Iran’s willingness to compromise with Russia. Whereas Russia pulled back some of its forces in the midst of a ceasefire that has since collapsed, Iran increased IRGC deployments and was ultimately blamed by some parties for contributing to the failure of the negotiated decline in hostilities.