Power struggle in Iran over the Syrian quagmire
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.