Power struggle in Iran over the Syrian quagmire

Sunday 03/07/2016
Defence Ministers of Iran Hossein Dehqan (C), Russia Sergei Shoygu (2ndR) and Syria Fahd Jassem
al-Freij (L) meet for talks in Tehran on June 9th.

Beirut - There are signs that divi­sions are intensifying within the Iranian leader­ship over the Islamic Re­public’s increasingly cost­ly intervention in the Syrian war.

Despite the opacity that shrouds the Machiavellian machinations that pass for politics in Tehran, events in recent weeks point to sig­nificant strategic shifts within the hierarchy over Syria and the inter­locking confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s long-time rival in the Arabian Gulf.

This unfolding drama could have sharp repercussions within the Is­lamic Republic and affect the entire region as it is convulsed by turmoil and the threat of more conflicts.

The latest twist occurred June 28th, when Iranian Supreme Lead­er Ayatollah Ali Khamenei abruptly replaced Iran’s top military com­mander, Major-General Hassan Fi­rouzabadi, the chief of staff since 1989, with his deputy, Major-Gen­eral Mohammad Bagheri.

There had been no hint of the shake-up and no explanation for the shuffle was given, although health problems may have been a factor. Firouzabadi suffered from obesity.

However, the general’s affiliation with Iran’s pro-reform president, Hassan Rohani, is the most likely explanation for his dismissal and the elevation of Bagheri, a senior of­ficer in the powerful Islamic Revo­lutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The IRGC has been the directing force behind Iran’s military inter­vention in the Syrian quagmire to keep Tehran’s key Arab ally in pow­er as part of the Islamic Republic’s expansionist ambitions to become the paramount power from the Cas­pian to the Mediterranean.

A likely explanation for the sack­ing of Firouzabadi, possibly for his sympathies towards Rohani’s ef­forts to end Iran’s international isolation, lies in the series of events that have taken place in recent weeks.

It began on May 6th, when Ira­nian forces and their allies, Shia mi­litias and Hezbollah, suffered heavy casualties in fighting anti-Assad re­bels south of the contested city of Aleppo in northern Syria.

This was a major setback for the pro-war faction amid growing popular dismay at Iran’s mounting losses.

On June 9th, defence chiefs of Iran, Russia and Syria met in Teh­ran to discuss war strategy and seek to eliminate growing differences between their forces in Syria and their allies.

The following day, it was an­nounced that Ali Shamkhani, a for­mer commander of the IRGC’s naval wing and the head of the Supreme National Security Council who sup­posedly favours negotiating a set­tlement, had been appointed the senior coordinator for political, military and security affairs with Syria and Russia.

This unprecedented step ap­peared to mark a significant shift in Tehran’s approach to the Syrian crisis, which had been conducted by the hardliners of the IRGC, and in particular Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of its elite foreign operations wing, al-Quds Force.

There were suggestions that this dramatic move, in effect stripping control of Iran’s military interven­tion from Soleimani, indicated Rohani’s administration is leaning towards a negotiated end to the conflict, encouraged by the United States.

Buttressing that interpretation of what is a novel Iranian move is Shamkhani’s call for “a dialogue between Syrian parties instead of resuming the war and shedding blood” during a recent meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Ser­gei Lavrov.

On June 15th, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a close Rohani associate who nego­tiated the July 2015 nuclear agree­ment with US Secretary of State John Kerry much to the dismay of the Tehran hardliners, attended a two-day diplomatic meeting in Oslo.

There Zarif let it be known that he has more authority on the thorny Syria issue and that Tehran may be inclined to be more flexible on ef­forts to find a political settlement. He talked with Kerry about how the Syrian war could be ended.

“The Syrian crisis can only be resolved politically and a solu­tion to the Syrian crisis will not be achieved through military means,” Zarif declared at an Oslo news con­ference.

Back in Tehran on June 19th, Zarif sacked his deputy minister for Arab and African affairs, Hossein Amir- Abdollahian, a seasoned Arabic-speaking diplomat reputedly affili­ated with the IRGC, and replaced him with Hossein Jaberi Ansari, the Foreign Ministry spokesman and considered a moderate close to the president.

There was no official explana­tion for that surprise shuffle either, which was clearly a bold move against the hardliners, reflecting the moderates’ growing concern for what they see as a headlong rush towards wider conflict in the region.

On June 20th, Soleimani, in Syria, fired back, demonstrating that he will not be shunted aside by Rohani and Zarif and that they should not seek a negotiated settlement in Syr­ia or other reforms.

In a rare and hostile public state­ment, the shadowy spymaster and strategist blasted the decision by Sunni-ruled Bahrain, a Saudi ally, to revoke the nationality of the is­land kingdom’s top Shia cleric for leading demands for reform by its Shia majority.

Bahrain’s rulers, he said, “will pay the price for their actions and its result will be… the annihilation of this bloodthirsty regime” and “the beginning of a bloody upris­ing”.

His blood-curdling threats were praised by conservative analysts and there is no sign the hardliners will relinquish their expansionist aims. Ultimately, it will depend on what Khamenei, who constantly plays both sides against the mid­dle, will do. So far he has said nothing.