The first week in September marked a new phase in the ongoing confrontation between Tehran and the West. While Israel uncovered a new Iranian base in Syria of unprecedented size, President Trump made cryptic comments over Twitter suggesting that the U.S. may have claimed another success in containing the Iranian ballistic missile program. Meanwhile, in Europe, Iranian and French officials have been engaged in marathon negotiations to salvage what remains of the nuclear deal.
ISRAELI COMPANY UNCOVERS NEW IRANIAN BASE IN SYRIA
On September 3, Image Sat International (ISI), an Israeli-based company specializing in high-accuracy satellite imagery and geospatial intelligence, revealed that Iran has established a new military base in Syria. Significantly larger than most Iranian installations in Syria, this base, which is located between Albukamal and Al-Qaim, is capable of housing thousands of troops. ISI analysts also note that the base contains five different buildings capable of housing precision-guided missiles.
The classified Iranian project, called the Imam Ali compound, was approved by top leadership in Tehran and is being completed by the Iranian Quds Force. This would mark a tactical departure for the IRGC, constituting the first time that they have constructed a base of this scale from the ground up in Syria, as opposed to expanding existing facilities. Adding strategic urgency to the development was the fact that the Imam Ali compound is located less than 200 miles from an American army position and considerably closer to the site of Israeli airstrikes in 2018.
TRUMP TAUNTS IRAN OVER ROCKET MISHAP
On August 30, U.S. President Trump tweeted what appeared to be a calculated taunt directed at Tehran over a “catastrophic accident” in the form of a satellite that exploded during final launch preparations. Trump remarked that “the United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident” and, in an apparent sarcastic flourish, “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened.”
The explosion marks the third failed rocket launch at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in recent months, raising suspicions both inside and outside of Iran that sabotage was involved. In February, reports emerged in American media that the Trump administration had accelerated a secret program to sabotage Iran’s missiles and rockets. It is widely believed in administration circles that Tehran’s space program is being used to camouflage a ballistic missile program which could house nuclear warheads.
For its part, Tehran waited several days before acknowledging the explosion. On September 2, government spokesman Ali Rabiei categorically denied the possibility of sabotage, claiming “this has been a technical matter and a technical error. Our experts unanimously say so.” Rabiei also criticized President Trump’s commentary on the failure: “We don’t understand why the U.S. president tweets and posts satellite pictures with excitement. This is not understandable.”
IRAN BETTING ON FRENCH EFFORTS TO SALVAGE JCPOA
On September 3, reports emerged that French president Emmanuel Macron was proposing a financial bailout package to compensate Iran for oil sales lost to American sanctions in exchange for renewed Iranian compliance with the terms of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal.
The aid package under discussion would consist of a $15 billion letter of credit which Iran could trade for hard currency, at a time when most of its oil revenue is frozen in banks around the world due to renewed American sanctions.
On September 3, the Iranian embassy in Paris tweeted that Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi and French officials had been in talks for over ten hours on Monday. “It was pretty much a technical discussion, and it went pretty well, on the whole,” according to a spokeswoman for the French foreign ministry. The previous day, Tehran spokesman Ali Rabiei sounded an optimistic note on the negotiations: “Fortunately, the points of views have become closer on many issues and now technical discussions are being held on ways to carry out the Europeans' commitments (in the nuclear deal)."
At almost the same time, Iranian President Rouhani told the Iranian parliament, “We have never had any decision at any point to hold bilateral negotiations with the United States...When we talk about negotiations, we only mean it under the situation where all sanctions have been lifted.” In so doing, he reversed comments from the week prior, when he stated that he "wouldn't mind meeting with an individual" to advance Iranian interests, in what was widely interpreted as an allusion to President Trump.