The past week has been a difficult one for Tehran and its regional ambitions. Israeli air strikes, economic collapse stemming from the coronavirus, and an ever-tightening American campaign of sanctions have exacted a heavy toll. Tehran has begun to show signs of yielding ground to the combined pressure of its adversaries on both the Syrian and international fronts.
IRANIAN DRAWDOWN IN SYRIA AMID ONGOING ISRAELI PRESSURE
On May 5, Israeli defense officials reported that Iranian forces have begun to withdraw from Syria and close some of their military bases in that country. This follows a spate of incidents in which unconfirmed but probable Israeli airstrikes have targeted Iranian-linked militias throughout Syrian territory. According to both Syrian government and opposition sources, two additional such attacks took place late Monday night, killing 14 Iranian and Iraqi nationals linked to Iranian-led militias, and severely wounding a number of others.
If Tehran expected a drawdown to lead to a slackening of the Israeli defense posture, there has been little evidence of it. Commenting on the purported Iranian withdrawal, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced that Israel would continue to pursue Iranian forces stationed in Syria, saying “They’re trying to immiserate and threaten our population centers and we won’t put up with it. They need to get out of Syria.” Bennett added, “We are more determined than the Iranians, because our lives and our children’s lives are at stake... For them, this is just an adventure a thousand kilometers away from home.”
BIPARTISAN MOVE TO EXTEND ARMS EMBARGO MEETS LITTLE RESISTANCE
Meanwhile in Washington, Democrats and Republicans embarked on a rare display of bipartisanship in the halls of Congress. By an overwhelming majority, 382 of the 435 members of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives have signed a letter urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to extend the arms embargo on Iran, currently due to expire in October, in addition to renewing UN travel restrictions on Iranians involved in the arms trade. “The UN arms embargo is set to expire in October, and we are concerned that the ban’s expiration will lead to more states buying and selling weapons to and from Iran,” according to the letter, co-drafted by Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Republican Mike McCaul.
Secretary Pompeo wasted little time in signaling his sympathy and support for the bipartisan initiative, saying on May 6 that "we're going to use every tool we can in our diplomatic capability to ensure that that prohibition on arms sales to Iran doesn't expire [in] just a handful of months.” Pompeo also noted that the U.S. is working closely with “our British, our French partners, our friends saying, ‘You all know this doesn't make sense, either.’ I think they agree with us on that.”
For their part, Iranian officials offered little noticeable pushback. Speaking in Tehran on Wednesday, President Rouhani merely noted, "If the arms embargo is extended in any form and through any mechanism, our response will be what I have stated in the last paragraph of my letter to the heads of JCPOA member states." That letter promised no concrete retaliation, simply claiming that “if [the U.S. and its allies] make a mistake, it will mark a historic defeat for them."