Under pressure, Iran might let go of Syria but not of Iraq

The latest Israeli raids mark a new phase in Israel’s dealing with Iran in Syria and possibly in Iraq at a later stage.
Sunday 27/01/2019
A poster of a member of Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Qassem Soleimani is seen at the Iraqi side of the Shalamcha Border Crossing. (Reuters)
Entrenched footprint. A poster of a member of Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Qassem Soleimani is seen at the Iraqi side of the Shalamcha Border Crossing. (Reuters)

Something has accelerated modification of the rules of the game between Iran and Israel. Tel Aviv talked of intercepting a missile fired by an Iranian unit in Syria directed at the Golan Heights. Media outlets close to Damascus and Tehran boasted about the attack.

It looked as though Tehran was baiting Israel to act and Israel was more than willing to accommodate.

There seemed to be some convergence in the behaviour of Tehran and Tel Aviv amid the tensions over Syria, which does not rule out that the game in Syria was rigged.

Previous Israeli attacks in Syria were carried out without official announcement by the Israeli military or political authorities. Israel was sure to be discrete about its raids. Some would say Israel didn’t want to embarrass the regime in Damascus, which has so often promised to respond to Israeli attacks at an “opportune time.” Others would say that Israel didn’t want to embarrass Russia, which controls the skies over Syria.

The latest raids, however, mark a new phase in Israel’s dealing with Iran in Syria and possibly in Iraq at a later stage. The military operations were announced by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, perhaps for electoral calculations, and details were given later by the Israeli military. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz talked about a full-blown confrontation with Iran. Tel Aviv has chosen to prepare the Israeli public for a possible major war.

While Iran might have invited the Israeli retaliation for tactical reasons, it probably did not anticipate the extent of the response and the change in the Israeli political spin. Tehran is unlikely to respond to the raid but that doesn’t prevent Iranian Air Force Commander General Aziz Nasirzadeh from declaring that Iran is eager to remove Israel from the map.

Just like that — in the blink of an eye — Tehran wiped out the public relations efforts of Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who in December told French magazine Le Point that Iran has never called for the destruction of Israel.

It is increasingly clear that the balance of power in Syria does not favour Iran. It is in favour not just of Israel but also of Russia, Turkey and the United States and whatever they are cooking up for Syria.

By firing a missile at Israel, Tehran knew that Israel would react. Iran might have hoped for this reaction so it could add it to the cards to take to the negotiating table during their next talks with Washington, hoping to have enough leverage to stay in Syria.

Iran realises that its exit from Syria has become a Russian demand, before being an Israeli and American demand, and that the need of the Damascus regime, under Russian patronage, to normalise relations with Arab countries is conditional on this withdrawal.

Iran must carefully examine statements US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made during his tour of the Middle East, in which he reiterated his country’s hard-line stance against Iran, in a way to prevent any misunderstandings of US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. US national security adviser John Bolton visited Israel to reassure Tel Aviv and perhaps even encourage it to cross the line by playing games with Iran in Syria.

It was reported that, while in Baghdad, Pompeo demanded that Iraq dissolve terrorist groups belonging to Iran, hinting at the possibility of Israel expanding its targets to groups in Iraq as well.

Tehran, however, loves to play the game of arrogance and defiance, sometimes by launching space satellites to demonstrate its missile capabilities, other times by threatening to remove Israel from the face of the Earth. It does not realise the magnitude of the changes on the international scene, which began to emerge in Europe and seems to be laying the foundations for a new direction that may be announced in the Warsaw Conference in February.

So, if the development in the Israeli approach is based on the backdrop of this transformation, then Iran would be suggesting to the international community its priorities in the region and clarifying what is permanent and what is shifting in its strategies.

Iran responded to Pompeo’s tour by sending Zarif to Iraq. Over five days he met with the leaders of the three branches of power, in addition to most of the others in power in the Iraqi political scene. It was as though he was touring an Iranian province and, in his meetings with most of the decision makers in Iraq, he sought to confirm Iran’s intention to keep its dominance of Iraq forever.

Tehran seemed to suggest to Washington that Iraq was a fundamental asset in Iran’s strategy in the region, while Syria was a sideshow that could be negotiated. Tehran is aware that it has lost its Yemeni card and that Hezbollah’s inflexibility on the issue of the composition of the next Lebanese government suggests that Lebanon is going to be the only haven after Iran’s withdrawal from Syria.

Iran has never been a suicidal state, however, and Tehran knows very precisely its limits. It is aware it is losing its cards outside its borders, especially in Syria and Yemen. During street protests in Iran, there were repeated slogans denouncing Iran’s presence in Gaza, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon on the grounds that those places had nothing to do with Iran.

Tehran could be suggesting that, while it may be forced to give up the distant capitals it controls, it will never renounce its right to interfere in Iraq. Didn’t some Iranian say that “Iran is an empire whose capital is Baghdad”? It might be that if Baghdad falls, the empire of the velayat-e faqih will be the next to go.