What appears to be an oil tanker war brewing in the Red Sea and beyond, including the downing of an Iranian drone by a U.S. Navy ship, is more evidence that Iran is showing the strain of American-led sanctions and reluctant European acknowledgment that appeasing the Islamic Republic is a losing proposition. Cornered, Iran is aggressively pushing back on the West even as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif used an American platform to suggest talks with Washington. (He tried to walk his words back, but his problem is clear.)
Iran has been riding high for a long time — not as high as it might have wanted to think, or as high as some Americans had feared — but the 21st century has, until now, been good for Tehran. The 2011 American withdrawal from Iraq gave the mullahs political and military influence in a major oil-producing country as well as a pathway to pursue their interests in Syria. Iran’s management of Yemen’s Houthi minority gave it a base in the Red Sea, providing an avenue for transfer of weapons to the unstable countries along the coast and to jihadists in Egypt’s Sinai, and for harassing the Sunni oil-producing states and international shipping.
The entire edifice, however, stood on the shaky pillar of money. The 2015 JCPOA (the “Iran deal”) provided that money, meaning Iran didn’t have to choose among its nefarious and expensive activities – or between those activities and the needs of its people. The deal supplied legitimacy, too, but Iran cared about legitimacy only as it allowed for moneymaking.
President Trump has squeezed the money flow and squeezed Iran in Syria. And Iran has begun to fail.
Iran and Russia are jockeying over the remains of the Syrian corpse. Russia is winning, in part because Iran has no money for bribes or military activity. Russia has taken over reconstruction; not of homes, farms and utilities, but of a new government for Bashar Assad. Asia Times reported on Russian changes among top-level Syrian generals and their replacement with:
…products of the post-2011 order, well-versed in warfare, and backed and trained by the Russians… (with) very little room left in their careers as they approach the age of 60. Meaning, they will collectively be retired by 2021. Appointing officers who are so close to retirement is seemingly part of Russia’s vision for revamping the security services… Things are notably different now, as most officers of Bashar’s old guard, who led the government offensive in 2011-2015 are either retired or dead.
Iran has no role, and none in the Russian-led creation of a panel of a Syrian government committee for international talks on a new constitution. “Assad and the Russian envoy agreed to continue working and intensely coordinate between both sides on the next steps, especially in forming a committee for discussing the constitution and the mechanisms and procedures of its work,” said a recent government statement.
Humiliating as that is, it’s worse to find the United States and Israel jointly monitoring the Iranian base at Bukamal, with no apparent interference from Russia — or Syria. According to Israeli sources, along with Iranian military officers, the base holds telecommunications, weapons stockpiles, and members of Iranian Shiite militias from Hezb’allah, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The base, however, is located directly across the Euphrates River from American and allied Syrian forces. Couple this with the American garrison at al-Tanf in the south overlooking the Baghdad-Damascus Highway and the most important Iranian military movements in Syria are under American surveillance. Along with that of the Israel Air Defense Force.
Having Assad remain in power under Russian control is not an optimal outcome for Syria and the Syrian people. It is, however, status quo ante bellum. Russia was there before and Russia is there now. Iran appears to have retained no levers of power.
On American television last week, Zarif was both cajoling and threatening. He followed up on Twitter, as is his habit.
Had we wanted to develop nuclear weapons we would have been able to do it long time ago. We have the capability. We have always had the capability — for many years but we decided… not to develop nuclear weapons. @JZarif 2/3
Wait a second — didn’t Ayatollah Khomeini issue a fatwa against nuclear weapons? JCPOA supporters said there would never be Iranian nuclear weapons because they were forbidden, but now Zarif wants to be paid to ensure that Iran doesn’t do what it isn’t entitled to do.
The time for paying off Iran is over. Continuing the squeeze on Iranian assets, coupled with international backing for freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf seems a better bet. But for that, we will need more patience.