by Hanin Ghaddar*
Ever since US President Donald Trump won the presidential elections, it was obvious for many regional powers that Iran’s honeymoon in the US was over. Although it seems that the Trump administration is not going to revoke the Iranian Nuclear Deal Agreement or even overthrow the regime in Tehran, the new rhetoric against Iran is becoming increasingly aggressive and confrontational.
Many in the region – including the GCC, Turkey and Israel – are pleased with this new rhetoric, especially after the former administration’s “friendlier” approach towards Iran, which lasted eight years, and gave Iran and its Revolutionary Guards a free hand in the region.
Trump Administration must solve two major challenges before US decides its next steps in the region – The Iran and Russia alliance and the fate of Assad
The question today is how the Trump Administration is going to translate this rhetoric to action. Maybe it is too early to say for sure what the plans for Iran are, but there are two major challenges that need to be resolved before the US decides its next steps in the region.
The first challenge is Russia. President Trump has repeatedly said – during the presidential campaign and afterwards – that he wants better relations with Russia. When it comes to the Middle East, especially Syria, his administration is trying to find a way to break up Iran and Russia alliance, assuming that Russia would prefer to be a closer ally to the US than Iran.
It is true that Russia and Iran do not see eye to eye on everything in Syria, mainly on the issue of the Shiite militias’ role after a ceasefire. And it is true that Russia is coordinating with Israel when it comes to Hezbollah’s convoys and operations in Syria. However, this does not mean that Russia is going to split with Iran anytime soon.
This Iran-Russia alliance is too deep and entrenched to break. Putin wanted to improve ties with Iran for both political economic reasons. Iran is a profitable market for Russia’s military and the arms trade, and so nuclear cooperation increased. Politically, the two countries share a strong opposition to Sunni Islamism, and against the US, although for different reasons. But most significantly, Iran was Russia’s main gate to the Middle East, through Syria.
In addition to the continued military coordination in and out of Syria, it was reported last week that Hezbollah has acquired about 8 advanced Russian-made strategic naval missiles.
According to Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, western intelligence agencies have expressed “grave concerns” that Hezbollah has acquired Yakhont missiles, also known as Onyx, a Russian supersonic anti-ship cruise weapon that is regarded as the naval equivalent of the antiaircraft S-300. These missiles can be fired from the shore and have a range of up to 300 kilometres.
This information was revealed by Western intelligence officials over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference where world leaders and defense ministers met to discuss major security issues.
“Hezbollah could use these missiles to significantly threaten the Israeli Navy, the US Sixth Fleet and civilian vessels in the Mediterranean, as well as Israel’s newly built oil and gas rigs,” the Israeli newspaper warned. “Even the most advanced missile interception systems are unable to effectively intercept it,” said the reports.
If there are any signs of the cooperation between Russia and Iran, it looks like a sustained and functioning alliance, despite the remaining differences. Nothing shows any signs of a potential disagreement, except for post-ceasefire Syria, which might take longer than expected or desired.
This alliance might fracture on the long-term, and it might witness deeper differences as things move forward in Syria and the region. Iran and Russia’s alliance in Syria has always seemed like a temporary one — while they agree on war, they differ on peace. Tehran often treats Assad’s army as just another one of its militias in Syria. It does not trust the army to secure its “Shiite corridor,” instead relying on Hezbollah and other Shiite militias to help change the demography of towns within regime-held areas. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) believes that any future solution in Syria will be based on sectarian grounds. That’s why Iran prefers a partition plan that guarantees a Shiite state under its control. Iran is not interested in state institutions or a unified Syria.
On the other hand, Russia has no interest in demographic changes or sectarian division in Syria. Vladimir Putin does not want Assad’s authority to be usurped behind the scenes by IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Instead, he prefers a political solution that leads to a gradual transition of power. Syria’s state institutions are more significant to Russia than Assad.
If the West is going to end the humanitarian disaster in Syria, Assad must go, Iran’s militias must go, and all foreign fighters must also go.
These differences might become more apparent after a ceasefire and when a political solution is discussed and implemented. Before that, the US cannot split the two powers.
In light of the above, the US might sooner or later realize that Russia is not a serious potential ally, and that Putin actually does prefer Iran to the US as an ally. Maybe when Russia is no longer considered a potential ally, there will be no need to make concessions, and it will be easier to move forward against Iran.
This brings us to the second challenge in Syria and that is the fate of Assad. So far, the US and other international powers have backed up from the “Assad must go” rhetoric. It has become acceptable that ISIS is the most dangerous threat and that Assad’s forces are fighting ISIS, which is not really happening on the ground. With Russia and Iran both unyielding when it comes to the fate of Assad, and the international community not working against it, he and his regime will stay in power.
However, with Assad in power, there is no stopping to the growing sectarian tension in Syria and the region at large. Iran’s and the Shiite militias’ presence in Syria will always be protected by Assad, but it will also be surrounded by a majority of Sunni population, not on in Syria, but in the Arab world as a whole. And this community is going to reject Assad no matter what the international community thinks or wants. Assad has committed multiple and horrendous crimes against humanity and he will not be able to reign over Syria as he used to, not after what happened in the past six years, and not with Iran and Russia controlling every decision of the state and its authorities. Even if Russia comes to understand this, Iran will not allow it. Therefore, Assad must go, and to make this happen, Iran’s militias and military presence must also go. They will have to be forced to go, one way or another.
If the West is going to seriously end the humanitarian disaster in Syria, Assad must go, Iran’s militias must go, and all foreign fighters – ISIS and others – must also go.
Trump cannot do all of the above without trouble with Russia. Therefore, it seems two things are inevitable: One, Russia can only be regarded as a stumbling block towards any strategy to confront Tehran. Two, Assad will have to go; otherwise, Iran won’t go.
The Russia conundrum will have to be solved before any steps to confront Iran. The good thing is that the Gulf States are no more marginalized, and are willing to cooperate and be involved in any upcoming strategy or moves to contain Iran.
Iran is not interested in state institutions or a unified Syria; it wants a partition plan that guarantees a Shiite state under its control.
One sign of this desired Arab role was last week’s visit by the Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir to Iraq, where he Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – the first such visit by a Saudi foreign minister since 1990. This visit caused serious concern in Iran, which in turned warned its Iraqi proxies.
For example, Jawad al-Talibawi, a spokesman for the armed wing of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite Iraqi militia group with close ties to the I.R.G.C., cautioned Iraq’s leaders that they should “be vigilant” about “the hidden goals behind Jubeir’s trip to Baghdad,” during an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency – Iran’s state news agency.
It is obvious that the anti-Iran stances and moves will increase and the GCC-US cooperation will also improve. However, a full-fledged war against Iran is still not in on the table, and there are many things that could be done without a military confrontation.
Besides economic sanctions, the US could work to empower the role of its Arab allies. And again, looking at Syria, Iran’s militias cannot continue to be given a free hand. Therefore, equal treatment of all terrorism groups – Sunni and Shiite – will have to be achieved.
To do that, Russia should not be allowed to stop any action against Tehran. Otherwise, the international community will be back at square one, and continue to fight ISIS without thinking who is going to replace ISIS. Without a proper US strategy and presence in the region, we will only see an increased Iranian power and presence, and an ISIS comeback.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.