But Iran is also experience fairly severe economic pressure amidst continued sanctions and depressed oil prices. The extent of the regime’s influence also suggests that its resources are spread fairly thin across multiple theaters of conflict. These various trends lead to contrasting observations about Iran’s foreign policy aims. On one hand, there are still signs of deepening influence. On the other hand, there are also signs of trouble for the durability of that influence.
In an editorial at Al Arabiya this week, Majid Rafizadeh responds to reports that Iran may be planning to build nuclear facilities in Syria, creating more infrastructural overlap in a country where Iran has already reportedly established its own missile production. Rafizadeh argues that the nuclear cooperation is not news in the sense that most people seem to think it is. “Iran-Syria or North Korean-Syria military and nuclear cooperation is not something new,” he writes, though he also acknowledges that there are unanswered questions about the extent of current cooperation, and about its intentions.
But whatever the answers to these questions, Iran and Syria are both taking care to deny the reports, with Iran evidently hoping that it will still be able to conclude nuclear negotiations in spite of any such cooperation. Rafizadeh goes on to warn the West against getting bogged down in this issue, however.
“This report,” he writes, “has diverted attention from Iran’s other indisputable and multi-layered activities and engagements in Syria- including the military, financial, intelligence, and advisory assistance to the Syrian government which have further radicalized and militarized the ongoing Syrian war.”
This is not to say that there has been a serious deficiency of policy analysis related to those activities. Indeed, on Friday the Strategy Page published a rather lengthy account of some of the conditions in Iran, especially as related to its foreign adventurism. The analysis notes that thanks to Iranian training and equipment, the Syrian Civil War has been going better for the Assad regime lately, and the soldiers and militias fighting on its behalf are now more effective than before and “see a better future than do many of the rebel fighters.”
Similarly, the Iran-backed Shiite militias in Yemen are proving quite effective and are increasingly dominating the Sunni majority in that country. At the same time, the Strategy Page finds that Iran’s successes in both Yemen and Syria are also contributing to increased burdens on the Iranian regime. It describes as “far-fetched” Arab fears that Iran will help to militarily defend a new Shiite government in the Yemen. Quite to the contrary, some Arab commentators note that Yemen is an “economic disaster zone” and may actually cost Iran more than it will provide in economic or strategic significance.
Concerning Syria, the Strategy Page observes, “Iran does not want its Syrian ally to be destroyed but subsidizing the Assad controlled population costs more than Iran can afford right now.” This is especially true in light of reduced oil prices, which are reportedly set to decrease Iran’s entire gross domestic product by upwards of ten percent. This may make control of Syria more difficult, especially if Iran takes on the burden of Yemen as well. It may also make it more difficult for Iran to control its own population, as the Strategy Page notes that Tehran will have to make up for revenue losses from among its citizenry, including by raising fees that may be paid by wealthy Iranians to avoid military conscription.
The limiting effects of Iran’s economic strain may already be showing in another of its foreign spheres of influence: Lebanon. The Tower reported on Thursday that the Iran-controlled paramilitary Hezbollah is facing an apparent crisis of confidence among its supporters, leading the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to embark on a public relations campaign aimed at alleviating concerns about diminished domestic effectiveness and excessive foreign entanglement.
Iran has utilized Hezbollah alongside local militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters in propping up and supplementing the Syrian army. But terrorist attacks inside of Lebanon have stoked fears that the Syrian conflict is beginning to spill across the border, leading to calls for Hezbollah to withdraw from the fight. If these calls are heeded, it will surely be a significant loss of Iranian control over the conflict.
It is possible that in light of this threat and the threat to Iran’s economy, Tehran is beginning to doubt its ability to support the Assad regime over the long term. This possibility is subtly suggested by a brief report at Arutz Sheva indicating that Tehran recently offered to give sanctuary to the Assad family in Iran – an offer that Assad refused on the basis that leaving the country would threaten his hold on power. Presumably Iran understands this as well, making it difficult to imagine why such an offer would be made, if not for fear that Assad will lose his hold on power anyway.
What’s more, Iran may be feeling the threat to its foreign policy objectives much closer to home, if certain reports from the civil war in Iraq are to be believed. Ya Libnan reports that Iran has denied claims regarding the injury of Qassem Suleimani. The IRGC commander has been widely described as the leading figure in the fight against the Sunni Islamic State in Iraq, being deemed a living martyr by supporters of the Iranian regime and its influence over the Iraqi Shiite majority.
It is known that Suleimani is now in Iran after having been on the battlefields of Iraq for several months, where photo ops portrayed him as being responsible for Iraqi and Kurdish victories. Some reports indicate that the reason for his sudden transfer to Iran is because he was wounded in an attack near Samarra and was later flown out of Baghdad because of the seriousness of his condition.
If Iran does indeed see itself as facing an increasing catalogue of sacrifices and losses in Iraq and Syria, it may affect the country’s wider foreign policy aims. While Tehran may be unwilling to relinquish its hold on these regions, it may seek new sources of outside help in doing so. And this impulse may in fact explain the sudden reconciliation that appears to be taking place between Iran and Turkey.
Only a few weeks ago, Iran announced plans to seal the fuel tanks of Turkish trucks at the border between the two countries, for fear of Turkey taking advantage of much lower fuel prices in Iran. Now the Anadolu Agency is reporting that a surcharge imposed on Turkish purchases of fuel has been dramatically and suddenly reduced from 1.60 Euro to 0.3 Euro.
Despite differing positions vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict, Turkey has long been cited by Iran as a potential ally in the Iranian fight against the Islamic State. Iranian officials have even suggested that an Iranian led coalition including Turkey and Iraq would be sufficient to destroy the Islamic State without help from the US or its numerous coalition partners that are currently contributing air support to the conflict.