As Reuters reported on Tuesday, representatives of Syria’s Assad regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran entered into new banking transfer agreements following a meeting in Damascus. The move is being viewed as an opportunity for the two countries to expand upon their increasingly close alliance and to bolster trade while potentially circumventing US sanctions that have increased in strength since President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last May.
The new agreement, spearheaded by Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, also promises to give Tehran an even stronger foothold in Syria’s political, economic, and military landscape as the country turns its attention to rebuilding in the wake of a civil war that has lasted nearly eight years. As that influence grows, it threatens to exclude the United States, which supported pro-democracy rebels against the Assad regime while Iran and Moscow defended the existing dictatorship.
The threat of Iran overriding American influence in Syria was underscored on Tuesday by Agence France Presse, which reported upon Bashar al-Assad’s personal response to the new plan for banking transfers as well as the broader string of agreements that were signed during Jahangiri’s trip to Damascus. These primarily economic deals follow upon a military cooperation agreement that was signed between Iran and Syria in August, which arguably helped to strengthen the position of Iran-backed Shiite militias inside Syria, where they freely operate alongside what is left of the regular army.
Channeling familiar Iranian propaganda, Assad describe the US as waging “economic war” in the Middle East, and he welcomed Iranian cooperation as a means of countering the efforts of Western powers. “These deals... will help consolidate Syrian and Iranian resilience against the economic war waged against them by some Western states,” he was quoted as saying.
Iranian Member of Parliament Allaedin Boroujerdi put the Iranian-American competition for influence in even starker terms, describing the agreements with Damascus as a “firm response” to efforts by Western powers to “change the political structure of the Syrian government.” According to the Iranian propaganda network Press TV, the Assad regime has already committed fully to Iran, stating that the US and its allies “won't be part of reconstruction in Syria, because very simply we won't allow them to be part of it, whether they come with money or not.”
Another report from the same source credits President Assad himself with urging both his own government and his Iranian allies to increase their efforts for mutual cooperation, with the specific aim of resisting Western strategies in the region. Press TV even goes so far as to say that the recent agreements between Tehran and Damascus represent “changing winds” that promise to bring about an altogether new Middle East, specifically one in which defiance of Western interests is more prevalent.
Of course, the realization of this goal would surely require the authors of such defiance to stand against the world’s most advanced military. But Tehran has made a particular habit of insisting upon its ability to do just that.
Last Friday, the Iranian military conduct large-scale war games that reportedly featured rapid-deployment techniques and showcased some of the latest developments in Iran’s military technology and strategy. The Algemeiner noted that Iran’s state media boosted these exercises “amid increased antagonism with the United States” and claimed that the exercises involved 12,000 elite troops, fighter jets, drones, and armored vehicles. They were also accompanied by familiar rhetoric regarding the supposed power of Iran’s military and paramilitary forces, which have been hobbled by international sanctions for much of the Islamic Republic’s 40-year existence.
Ramezan Sharif, a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, specifically claimed in a press conference on Tuesday that Iran’s defense sector had realized the “most astounding achievements” during that time, and that pressure from the international community had had no effect. “All these advances were made under the enemy’s heavy sanctions that have existed since the beginning of the revolution,” he said according to The Iran Project.
The article then goes on to say that the Islamic Republic has made “great headways” in the domestic development and manufacture of a broad range of military equipment during recent years. However, Iranian state media’s claims to this effect have in many cases been debunked by military experts, who identified supposedly new Iranian weapons and vehicles as non-functional mock-ups or outmoded technologies modified with something akin to a new coat of paint.
However, this is not to say that Iran has made no progress in any of its areas of domestic weapons production. The country has apparently expanded the range of its ballistic missile arsenal while also greatly expanding the size of that arsenal. This trend continued after the implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which was enshrined by a United Nations Security Council resolution that calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on all nuclear-capable weapons. Tehran has specifically disregarded the provision, arguing that its ballistic missiles are not designed for the express purpose of carrying nuclear warheads, and that the language of the resolution makes compliance optional.
In remarks made to Tasnim News Agency on Tuesday, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami reiterated the regime’s longstanding rhetoric about ballistic missile development, stating that other officials “have repeatedly said our missile capabilities are not negotiable.” Another state media outlet then quoted Hatami as saying that while the nation’s missile development would be ongoing, it would focus only on precision and not on range. But this claim was seemingly belied by an attempted space launch that was carried out earlier in January and may have pointed to a desire to construct a very long-range, space re-entry missile.
These and other recent Iranian gestures have prompted backlash from the international community, and especially from the European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal. France and the United Kingdom, being also permanent members of the UN Security Council, called a meeting of the body to discuss the matter late last year. There is little reason to suppose that the anxieties expressed by such public condemnation will diminish based solely on assurances from Iranian official, least of all when those assurances come amidst the sharp anti-Western rhetoric that currently surrounds talks between Tehran and Damascus.
Furthermore, Iran’s efforts to publicly undermine the US’s position is by no means limited to Syria. Another report published on Tuesday by The Iran Project quoted Major General Mohammad Baqeri, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, as saying of neighboring Iraq, “Its leadership is looking for a way to drive out the US.” This statement came in the midst of further boasting about supposed American losses in Syria, as well as about the general strength of the Islamic Republic.
“The enemy is aware that if it intends to launch an invasion and aggression, it will get a crushing response,” Baqeri said at a ceremony in Tabriz. As The Iran Project pointed out, such remarks are reminiscent of those that have been emanating from the highest reaches of the regime since its inception, but especially in the Trump era. The report credited Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei with promoting the view that American decision-making in the region had been forced to change. Specifically, he claimed, the US had come to understand that if it confronts Iran, it “will definitely suffer blows and defeat.”
The fact remains that all such rhetoric is sure to be regarded on the international stage as being far removed from reality. There is no scenario in which a heavily impoverished nation with largely antiquated military technology can present a credible military threat to the United States. However, as fantastic as that rhetoric is, the officials who espouse it are surely emboldened by the support they receive from other, more powerful and stable US adversaries.
Chief among the Islamic Republic’s allies is Russia, which provided air support for Iranian ground forces and militant proxies during their defense of the Assad regime in Syria. There are growing signs of Moscow proceeding to provide Tehran with political support for its much broader efforts to spread its influence and confront its professed “enemies” in the West.
Along these lines, Newsweek reported on Monday that the Foreign Ministers of Russia and Iran had held talks over the situation in Venezuela, where a challenge to the rule of President Nicolas Maduro has been granted legitimacy by some foreign governments, including that of the US. In their discussion, Sergei Lavrov and Mohammad Javad Zarif reportedly agreed that the American support of Venezuela’s National Assembly leader Juan Guaido constituted an “attempt to illicitly intervene” in the country’s affairs, and they signaled readiness to oppose the American position there in the Western hemisphere.
For its part, the Trump administration apparently refuses to back down, maintaining that “all options are on the table.” This may reflect commitment not only to its position regarding Venezuela, but also to its famously assertive posture regarding the Islamic Republic. Even before winning office, President Trump decried the Iranian regime as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and signaled his intention to tear up the nuclear agreement that had been spearheaded by his predecessor. Now, two years into his first term, he has not only fulfilled that promise but has extended anti-terror sanctions to the entirety of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and has sought to build international consensus regarding the need to confront Iranian influence.
These commitments seemed at odds with his announcement last year of plans to withdraw US forces from Syria, but now there are new signs of the US president changing course to keep the pressure on Tehran. Another Newsweek report indicated on Monday that the White House has actually sent more troops to Syria to protect those that are leaving, and that it might leave some in place over the long term, with the express purpose of helping to expel forces that are operating under Iranian command.