Such commentary reflects familiar narratives that the Iranian regime has been promoting in recent weeks, as tensions between itself and the United States increase and the imminent expansion of US sanctions looms over Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, for instance, has delivered a number of speeches insisting that Tehran is capable of wholly defeating the sanctions. And in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last weekend, he argued that the cooperation between their countries, particularly in the context of the Syrian Civil War, is evidence that Washington can be “contained”.
But Tehran’s preoccupation with confronting the US and thwarting the assertive policies of President Donald Trump casts doubt upon IRNA’s notion that neighborly cooperation with Iran will lead to “solidarity” and “guarantee peaceful relations among regional countries.” For one thing, that preoccupation has seemingly thwarted the peace process in Syria, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies have been repeatedly accused of violating ceasefires brokered by Russia and Turkey.
These violations apparently serve to deepen the Iranian footprint in Syria as part of an effort to counterbalance American influence in the region. Presently, the Islamic Republic is making a concerted effort to leverage those militant proxies and the IRGC for a full-scale assault on Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria and a lynchpin in the prospective land corridor between Tehran and the Mediterranean Sea.
The presence of Iranian militant proxies poses a threat to prospects for peace and stability in Iraq, as well. That situation was detailed on Thursday by The Cipher Brief, which noted that Iran-backed groups remain armed after the defeat of Sunni militants affiliated with the Islamic State, whose widespread presence had previously justified the Iranian intervention. The report also specified that these paramilitary groups remain in “a separate chain of command from the duly constituted Iraqi government armed forces.”
Tehran’s appeal for regional cooperation is deeply ironic at a time when these proxy forces are proliferating and often acting contrary to the interests of the countries in which they are located. And the irony is made greater by the fact that Iranian forces recently violated Syrian and Iraqi autonomy more directly, while also insisting that regional governments crack down on terrorist groups that are not backed by the Islamic Republic.
On September 9, the IRGC launched missile strikes in the Kurdish region of Iraq, targeting headquarters of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. Xinhua News Agency reported that Major General Mohammad Baqeri, the chief of staff for Iran’s Armed Forces, appeared to reserve the right for more such attacks when he said on Thursday, “Bases of counter-revolutionary (forces) and ill-wishers of the Iranian nation must not exit near our borders in neighboring states.”
Baqeri reportedly followed up on this by insisting that the Iraqi government and the government of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region are responsible for keeping these groups under control. That warning was implicitly extended to Syria, as well, which was the subject of another Iranian missile strike on October 1. That strike was presented by Iranian officials both as revenge for a terrorist attack on a military parade roughly a week earlier and as a warning to Western “enemies,” in keeping with the regime’s effort to use regional conflicts as fuel for anti-Western propaganda.
The effort to confront American and European influence in the region is certainly being conducted through the operation of militant proxies in Iraq and Syria. But Iran is also circumventing its neighbors’ national autonomy by way of expanding political influence. As the Cipher Brief notes, the paramilitary groups in Iraq have begun to field their own candidates for high office and to otherwise promote policies that are favorable to Iranian interests and opposed to those of the US. This naturally belies the claims that are still being made by Iranian officials regarding the supposedly mutual benefits of broader regional cooperation under an Iranian banner, unless one considers ant-Western sentiment to be mutually beneficial in and of itself.
Tehran’s official promises of regional peace and prosperity were further undermined this week by the spread of stories regarding Iranian violations of Iraqi water rights. Iranian state media naturally denied those reports, but Emirates-based The National explained that dams in both Iran and Turkey have already caused the Tigris River to reach record-low water levels, such that people have been filmed walking across it, with the water coming only up to their knees.
Nevertheless, IRNA insisted that reports were false which quoted Iranian officials as acknowledging the dam projects. It also suggested that the reports were part of a coordinated effort to “harm relations between Iran and Iraq.” Such claims, like the appeals for regional solidarity, are common features of official Iranian narratives, and they have been applied to reports of Iran’s activities not only in the region but also throughout the world.
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the Iranian Foreign Ministry had summoned the German ambassador to hear complaints over a recent court decision regarding the extradition of an Iranian diplomat to face charges in Belgium. The diplomat in question is accused of masterminding a plot to detonate explosives at a gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran near Paris. The AP noted that Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi denied the allegations and dismissed the German decision as part of a plot to sever Iranian-European relations, though he offered no evidence to support that claim.
The previous week, it was reported that an exhaustive investigation by French intelligence had left officials with no doubt that the diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, was behind the foiled plot or that he had been operating on the order of officials in Tehran. And on Friday the Washington Post published an article affirming that the revelation of the Paris plot has fueled considerable concern that Iran is plotting other attacks in Europe.
These concerns underscore another worrying aspect of Iran’s appeals for regional economic cooperation, namely that some such cooperation is likely to provide financing for terrorist groups with designs on targeting either Iran’s Western “enemies” or its ideological opponents in the broader Middle East. This danger is made apparent by the illicit nature of some of the transactions in which Iran is already engaging. The NCRI recently reported, for instance, upon the fact that Iran has become a major transit point for charcoal being smuggled out of Somalia. In this way, the Islamic Republic has helped to generate an estimated 7.5 million dollars for the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab terrorist group.
The NCRI points out that these operations represent only a small portion of the Iranian regime’s smuggling, terrorist financing, and violations of United Nations sanctions. And the sanctions-busting aspect of the scheme is something that is certain to be reflected in other transactions, particularly after the return of the American secondary sanctions on the Iranian oil industry in early November.
A report published by Forbes on Thursday detailed some of the ways in which Iran is apparently already concealing its oil exports and thereby practicing for illicit operations that might continue after November. The report went on to suggest that these secretive activities constitute a reason for the US government to avoid sanctions waivers and to consider taking further steps to crack down on countries and businesses that facilitate the evasion of sanctions on Iran.
In view of Iran’s regional propaganda, such crackdowns could have the added effect of mitigating the regime’s efforts to deepen its influence among neighbors and its promotion of anti-Western solidarity throughout much of the Middle East.