Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hossein Jaber Ansari’s statements in a dual press conference on Tuesday served a dual role. As summarized by Agence-France Presse, his remarks denied a change in Iran’s status within the Syrian conflict while also reinforcing previous denials that Iran had ever taken on a direct combat role.
Foreign observers recognize the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as having taken a leading role in recent offensives in Syria, as evidenced by a dramatic increase in reported IRGC casualties. More recently, analysts seem to agree that the most likely interpretation of current movements is that the Iranian paramilitary organization is moving back into the advisory role that Tehran claims it has always maintained.
But this is different from withdrawal, and Ansari’s remarks seem to pointedly deny any waning of Iranian influence. Ansari denied Iran’s past combat roles by saying that the Syrian government had not requested the presence of Iranian troops. But he also left open the possibility of future deployments while also implying continued, close contact between Tehran and Damascus, saying that the Iranians would consider an expanded combat role if it was asked of them.
Meanwhile, other representatives of the Foreign Ministry have taken additional measures to dispel rumors of a potential change of Iranian policy or strategy in Syria. Rudaw points out that the Iranian propaganda network Press TV had run a report on Sunday claiming once again that Iran has no differences with Russia over the future of the Syrian government.
While these claims may be in response to the notion that Iran is now taking a less active role in the front lines of the conflict against Syrian rebels, it is just as likely a response to reports that Western strategy is focused on convincing Moscow to concede to a replacement for Assad as that country’s president. Indeed, Rudaw quotes Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian as blaming “certain Western media” for the perceived potential for a Russia-Iran split.
A number of analysts have suggested that Russia’s interests in Syria pertain more to preserving its military and naval bases there than preserving the Assad regime per se. Iran, on the other hand, is understood to see Assad as a lynchpin for its regional strategy and to be more committed to the preservation of his rule than to any related goal, including the defeat of ISIL.
In fact, some analysts feel that Iran is not serious about defeating ISIL at all and would just as soon allow the Sunni militant group to flourish, as long as it does not directly threaten Iran’s borders or regions of Iraq and Syria where Iranian influence is already firmly established.
Cooperation between Shiite Iran and Sunni militant groups is not unheard of. In fact, on Wednesday The Tower highlighted the historical relationships between Iran and Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist cell that would go on to develop into ISIL. The article noted that the United States Treasury exposed extensive financial ties between the two parties in 2012. Some of those ties may have persisted to the present day, with ISIL now filling the role of its predecessor.
The Tower and Iran News Update previously reported that Iranian money seems to have passed to ISI. Those reports suggested that this could not happen without Iran’s awareness and complicity. The Tower now adds that there may be more direct economic exchange as well, with both Iran and its proxies in Syria buying oil from ISIL, paid for with both money and weapons.
This may seem far-fetched in light of the fact that Iran is apparently being considered as a possible partner of the West in the fight to destroy ISIL. But as The Tower pointed out in its report and as other analysts have indicated in the past, Iran effectively needs the presence of its Sunni rival as a pretext for maintaining and expanding its influence in Iraq and Syria. In fact, this strategy of willfully dividing foreign conflict areas has been demonstrated by the Iranians in other areas as well.