The Iranian consulate in its new location (Shia News, February 10, 2020)
- Senior Iranian officials avoided commenting regarding reports on deaths among the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in a strike, carried out in the Damascus area on February 13, which was attributed to Israel. Iranian media, too, provided only brief reports on the strike, without addressing casualties or damage caused to IRGC forces in Syria. It is possible that the absence of an Iranian response is intended to provide it with a space for denial and allow it to avoid a retaliation. Meanwhile, Iranian officials issued threats to respond to continued Israeli attacks on Iranian interests. The spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that any Israeli aggression against Iranian interests in Syria will be met with a crushing retaliation. In addition, the commander of the IRGC declared that “the smallest mistake” by Israel and the United States will face a harsh response from Iran, warning that all of Israel’s territory is within the striking range of Iran’s missiles.
- Another fighter of the IRGC was killed in Syria, likely in a strike of an anti-tank guided missile deployed by Syrian rebels in the Aleppo area. In early February, another officer was killed in the Aleppo front, providing further evidence to the growing involvement of the IRGC, Hezbollah and the Shi’ite militias operating with Iranian guidance in the ongoing campaign in northwestern Syria.
- In mid-February, the Speaker of the Iranian Majlis, Ali Larijani, conducted an official visit to Syria and Lebanon. During the visit, Larijani met with senior officials in Damascus and Beirut, stressing Iran’s commitment to continue providing support to Syria and Lebanon, and calling for increasing the economic cooperation between the countries.
- Further evidence for the growing challenges facing Iran’s efforts to increase its economic clout in the region: a member of Iranian Trade Association addressed in an interview the challenging facing trade between Iran, Syria and Iraq. She mentioned that Syria does not have enough funds to purchase Iranian goods and that the anti-Iranian protests in Iraq have forced some Iranian exporters to halt their trade with the country. In parallel, the chairman of the export committee of the Iranian Electric Syndicate admitted that the implementation of part of the agreement concerning cooperation in the electricity sector, signed between Iran and Iraq, was recently placed on hold as a result of the political and economic developments in Iraq.
- Ongoing contact between senior Iranian officials and commanders of Palestinian militant groups: a delegation headed by the Iranian ambassador to Beirut met with the Secretary General of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhleh, and the Speaker of the Majlis, Larijani, met al-Nakhleh during his visit to Beirut. Larijani also met with a delegation of the leadership of Hamas, headed by a member of the group’s political bureau, Musa Abu Marzooq. In the meetings, the two delegations discussed Iran’s continued support for the Palestinians against the backdrop of President Trump’s “Deal of the Century.”
Iranian Involvement in Syria and Lebanon
- Iranian media reported that a fighter in the ranks of the Qods Force of the IRGC was killed in battle in the frontlines around Aleppo. According to the reports, Hamid Reza Babolkhani, from the city of Esfahan, was killed by an anti-tank missile strike by the Syrian rebels around Aleppo (Mizan News, February 18). In early February, the killing of another officer in the ranks of the IRGC’s Qods Force was reported in the battles around Aleppo.
- The Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Mousavi, declared that any aggression or “stupid” Israeli action against Iranian interests in Syria and the region will be met with a crushing response. He stressed that Iran’s presence is based on the invitation of the government of Syria and with its approval, and is intended to fight “terrorism,” which is supported by the United States and Israel, he claimed. He insisted that Iran will not hesitate to defend its presence in Syria, its national security and its regional interests (Tasnim, February 12). Mousavi’s statement followed the declaration of Israeli Minister of Defense, Naftali Bennet, that Israel is changing its mode of conflict with Iran and will continue to exact a price from Iran until achieving the final goal of forcing Iran to exit Syria.
- The Commander of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, also made threats against Israel and the United States. During a ceremony marking 40 days since the death of Qasem Soleimani, the former Qods Force commander, Salami declared that “the smallest mistake” on their part will trigger a harsh response from Iran. Salami praised Soleimani and his accomplishments, saying that when Soleimani entered the battlefield against “the Zionists” the Palestinians were fighting with stones, while now the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are using fire against the “Zionists” (Fars, February 13). In an interview to the al-Mayadeen network (February 17), Salami warned Israel to be careful, since all of its territory is within the striking range of Iran’s missile, underlining that the launch of missiles will not be carried out from Iranian territory alone. He remarked that the Israelis are significantly weaker than the Americans and that there is a strong possibility to eliminate the “Zionist regime,” but conditions are still not ripe.
- The newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat reported (February 15) that two senior Iranian commanders were killed in the strike carried out in Damascus on February 13, which was attributed to Israel. According to the report, the two killed were Rezaei Mohammadi, who served as the commander in charge of transporting IRGC forces to the Damascus region, and Hajj Hossein, who was the chief logistics officer of the IRGC in Syria. Prior to this, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that seven people, four of them Iranian and three Syrian, were killed in the strike. According to the group, the attack was aimed at an Iranian arms depot near the Damascus international airport. In satellite footage published by the Israeli company ISI, large-scale damage can be seen, caused in the strike to a logistics center of the IRGC’s Qods force near the airport.
- The reports about Iranian casualties have not been confirmed by any Iranian sources and Tehran officials did not comment on the matter. Iranian media provided brief reports about the strike, without mentioning any damage or casualties in the ranks of the IRGC in Syria.
- The Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated in an interview with the Tasnim news agency (February 19), that Iran is willing to hold talks with Syria and Turkey concerning the situation in Idlib. Prior to this, the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi also declared that his country is willing to mediate between Syria and Turkey to settle the tensions between the two concerning the ongoing crisis in Idlib (Tasnim, February 7).
- On February 16, the Speaker of the Majlis, Ali Larijani, set off for an official visit to Syria and Lebanon. On the eve of his departure to Damascus Larijani stated that in his visit, he intends to meet with senior Syria officials to deliberate on developments in Syria and the region, as well as expanding parliamentary cooperation between the two countries. During the visit, Larijani met with President Assad and stressed the importance of victories made by the “Resistance Axis” in the campaign against the “terrorists” in the Idlib front. He further declared that Iran will continue providing support to Damascus in the war against terror. In addition, Larijani met with the Prime Minister of Syria, Imad Khamis, and the Speaker of the Syrian parliament, Hammoudeh Sabagh, and visited the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine near Damascus, considered holy by Shi’ite Muslims. In a meeting with the speaker of the Syrian parliament, Larijani stated that Iran is committed to assist Syria during its reconstruction (Fars; ISNA, February 16).
- After concluding his visit to Damascus, Larijani traveled to Beirut, where he met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Hassan Diab, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, and the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. Upon arrival in Beirut, Larijani declared that Lebanon is an influential country in the region and that Iran is hoping to see it free and independent. In his meetings with senior Lebanese officials, Larijani welcomed the appointment of the new prime minister in Lebanon, declaring that Iran is willing to offer assistance to Lebanon and expand cooperation between the countries in the sectors of water, electricity, gas, agriculture, oil and the petrochemical industry, and to cooperate with the new government in Beirut (Tasnim, February 17).
- A member of Iran’s Women Merchants’ Association, Layla Fathi, addressed in an interview to the ILNA news agency (February 15), the challenges facing trade between Iran and Syria. She mentioned that Syria does not have enough funds to purchase Iranian goods and that legislation in Syria makes it difficult for Iranian traders to export goods to it. According to her, Iranian traders are forced to wait for a long time until receiving payment for the goods that they export to Syria, due to the shortage in foreign exchange reserves in Syria. Fathi also addressed trade relations between Iran and Iraq, admitting that the anti-Iranian protests in Iraq have harmed trade between the two countries and that some Iranian exporters were forced to halt their business dealings with Iraq. She added that trade with Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other hand, has not been affected.
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
- At a conference convened to commemorate the fallen fighters of the “Resistance Front,” held in Tehran, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, the Commander of the pro-Iranian Iraq Shi’ite militia, Harakat al-Nujabaa’ (the Movement of the Noblemen), declared that the militia intends to fight U.S. forces until they are forced out of Iraq. He remarked that the “Resistance Front” is not afraid of U.S. threats and its attempts to instill fear, and that the Front decided to realize a decision to establish a balance of terror against them and force them to withdraw from Iraq. He added that his organization is determined to avenge the death of the “commanders of the Resistance and the martyrs” and is preparing for war, because the countdown has started toward zero hour, when the death of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis will be avenged. The two were killed in a U.S. drone strike in early January 2020. According to al-Kaabi the fighters of the Movement follow all the aerial and ground movements of the American forces in bases in Iraq (Tasnim; Mehr, February 15).
- The Iranian consulate in Najaf was reopened after being closed for about two months since it was attacked and set alight by Iraqi rioters in late November 2019. The Iranian consul general to Najaf, Hamid Makarem, stated in an interview to IRNA (February 10), that the work of the consulate, including the provision of all needed consular services, will resume within a week. Following the torching of the consulate building, it was moved to a new location in one of Najaf’s hotels.
- Payam Baqeri, the Chairman of the Export Committee of the Iranian Electricity Syndicate, stated that realizing parts of the agreements on cooperation in the electricity sector, signed between Iran and Iraq, was frozen following the political and economic developments in Iraq. He stated that Iran is waiting for the political system in Iraq to stabilize, and for decision that will be made by the new Iraqi government. He added that Iran is examining the possibility of reaching a similar agreement in the electricity sector with Syria (Eqtesad Online, February 18).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
- The Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad Nakhleh, met with the Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad Jalal Firouznia, who arrived for a meeting with him at the helm of a delegation comprised of embassy staff. During the meeting, the ambassador expressed Iran’s support for the Palestinian position, which opposes the “Deal of the Century.” Al-Nakhleh congratulated Iran on the occasion of the 41st anniversary of Islamic Revolution and thanked Iran for its support for the Palestinian people (ISNA, February 11).
- The Speaker of the Iranian Majlis, Ali Larijani, met during his visit to Lebanon with the Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhleh, and with a delegation of Hamas’ leadership, headed by a member of Hamas’ Political Bureau, Mousa Abu Marzooq. During the meeting with al-Nakhleh, held at the Iranian embassy in Lebanon, Larijani stressed the dangers entailed in the “Deal of the Century,” of President Trump and Iran’s support for the Palestinian people and “the resistance” (the website of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, February 17).