The Washington Post reported on June 1 that Iran and Russia had been jointly developing plans to push the remaining US military presence out of Syria, where around 900 personnel remain embedded with Kurdish forces that maintain nominal control over the eastern part of the country. Although Syria’s civil war has lasted for 12 years, the situation remains tense as the Iranian and the dictator Bashar al-Assad struggle to regain full control over all territory, while moderate and secular rebel groups help to hold back a potential resurgence of extremist groups such as ISIS.
Descriptions of the Iranian and Russian plans are largely based upon leaked communications from a Discord server maintained by Iran-backed militant groups. These indicate that the Iranian regime plans to escalate its proxy attacks on US forces in Syria. This comes just several weeks after one militant group launched an attack using Iranian-made drones, which killed one American contractor and wounded another, alongside two military personnel.
According to the Post, recent communications have referred to increases in the amount and type of military equipment being provided to the militants by Iran’s regime. Toward that end, the Quds Force – the foreign operations wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – reportedly conducted tests on explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, in January. Similar explosive devices were used by Iran-backed militants in Iraq during the US occupation of that country and ultimately accounted for hundreds of casualties. The Quds Force has claimed that in one test near Damascus, an EFP was shown to be capable of breaching the armor plating of a tank.
The occurrence of such tests within Syrian territory underscores the fact that Tehran is not only providing its local proxies with arms, but is also contributing to their training, and perhaps to expanding domestic military production and know-how. In fact, the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, acknowledged this multi-faceted cooperation himself in a press conference on May 31, referring not only to Syria but to all “friendly” countries in the region.
“The Iranian Armed Forces are fully prepared to upgrade the level of ties in various fields, including the wholesale export of defense and military equipment as well as training, exercises, and the practical transfer of experience,” he said.
Also on May 31, the Iranian and Iraqi Interior Ministers held a meeting to discuss “issues of common interest,” according to the state-run Mehr News Agency. They implied that they would be expanding security cooperation in the Kurdish border region, ostensibly to fight “terrorism.” Despite its own reliance on non-state actors in combat against shared enemies, Tehran routinely applies the terrorist label to all entities that challenge the theocratic system. On May 30, Kazem Gharibabadi, the Secretary of the regime’s “High Council for Human Rights,” even went so far as to say that Iran is the “biggest victim of terrorism in the world.”
Gharibabadi’s remarks were seemingly designed to provide moral justification for the aforementioned Iranian-Russian project to drive the US out of the region. “Wherever there are footprints of terrorist groups, American support is seen,” he said, before going on to credit the eliminated Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani with fighting against terrorists in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere prior to his death in a US drone strike in January 2020.
At the time, Soleimani was widely recognized as Tehran’s leading terrorist operative, having played a vital role in the empowerment of Hezbollah and the expansion of various other Shiite militant proxies in the region, not to mention the defense of the Assad regime against pro-democracy rebels. But according to Gharbabadi, the American defense of those groups and the accompanying fight against ISIS was actually “a front to defend terrorism, whose main goal was to save terrorism.”
That sentiment was also evident in statements made by the regime’s president Ebrahim Raisi at the closing ceremony of a meeting of the heads of Iranian missions to foreign organizations. Describing “deterrence” as a key focus of Tehran’s foreign policy, Raisi’s remarks were certainly relevant to the expansion of the regime’s influence via regional proxies, but the explicit focus remained on the advancement of its domestic military capabilities.
Dubious claims of world-leading military readiness were repeated by Major General Abolrahim Mousavi, the commander in chief of the Iranian army, who took part in a ceremony in Mashhad on June 1 and declared that any mission he orders “would be done in the shortest possible time” and that the army “can perform its duties at any time in any field.”
“We have always tried to keep up with the threats from the enemies in regard to advanced technology and even have been one step ahead of our enemies,” he added, no doubt referring to Iran’s ever-growing stockpiles of military drones and ballistic missiles. His remarks come just days after Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, claimed that Iran was on the verge of unveiling a hypersonic ballistic missile capable of maneuvering outside of Earth’s atmosphere and evading all missile defense systems.
Iran’s regime has a long history of exaggerating its own military accomplishments. However, some recent claims regarding missiles and drones have proven genuine, in a testament to the effectiveness of the regime’s partnerships with fellow anti-Western entities and its use of illicit transactions to finance military buildups and terrorism.
This latter issue was the focus of a press conference held in Washington on May 31 by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The coalition’s Deputy Director Alireza Jafarzadeh used the event to present internal documents obtained by the domestic intelligence network of the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. These largely detailed an oil smuggling network that has allowed the regime to evade many Western sanctions targeting its terrorist activities, human rights abuses, and provocative nuclear work.
The press conference pointed to the existence of companies in several regional countries that function as fronts for the IRGC, and which are accordingly dedicated in large part to the financing of terrorism. Jafarzadeh went on to argue that in light of these Iranian workarounds, existing sanctions are inadequate and must be made “more targeted” and “more layered” in order to prevent implementation of the regime’s plans for expanding its malign influence and undermining Western interests in Syria, the broader Middle East, and the world at large.