The meeting between the Iranian deputy minister of foreign affairs and Omar al-Hakim (IRNA, September 28, 2019)
- Recently, the official website of the Supreme Leader of Iran uncharacteristically published photos documenting a meeting of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and the Commander of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qasem Soleimani. It is unclear when the meeting was held. The photographs were published alongside a wide-ranging interview with Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, published on the website of the Supreme Leader. In the interview, Nasrallah detailed the development of relations between Iran and Hezbollah since the 1980s. In addition, a rare interview with Qasem Soleimani was aired on Iranian TV concerning the 2006 Lebanon War. It is possible that these media appearances, alongside the threats recently made toward Israel by senior IRGC commanders, are intended to send a deterrent message to Israel to dissuade it from continuing to act against Iranian-linked targets in Syria, Lebanon and western Iraq.
- Iranian media reported extensively about the re-opening of the Albu Kamal-al-Qaem border crossing between Iraq and Syria, emphasizing its strategic importance for bolstering ties between Syria, Iraq and Iran, and facilitating the movement of the Shi’ite Iraqi militias in the border areas. The Albu Kamal region is perceived by Iran as strategically important, as it serves as a crucial link in the land corridor Iran seeks to establish from its territory to the Mediterranean.
- The Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, threatened that Iran will strike American forces stationed in Iraq if the U.S. carries out an attack against it. In response, the spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense rushed to clarify that Iraq will not allow itself to become a battlefield of other countries. Meanwhile, the decision of the Iraqi prime minister to remove from office a senior Iraqi Army commander is causing widespread popular discontent, driven in part by the belief that the decision was made under Iranian pressure, as part of a move to increase the influence of Shi’ite pro-Iranian militias among Iraq’s armed forces.
- In the economic sphere, Iran continue to entrench its influence in Syria and Iraq: the Syrian minister of oil visited Iran in late September and discussed with senior Iranian officials expanding cooperation between the two countries in the spheres of energy, industry and trade. In parallel, a senior Iranian economic official announced that the Iranian Parsian Bank, which is subjected to United States’ sanctions due to its ties to the IRGC, has received a permit from the Iraqi Central Bank to establish seven branches in Iraq.
- The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Mohammad Baqeri, confirmed that Iran is providing assistance in the form of military advice to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. He denied, however, the allegations that Iran is transferring missiles to Yemen.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
- In late September, the Syrian Minister of Oil, Ali Ghanem, visited Iran. During his visit, the minister met with senior economic Iranian officials , and participated in a conference of the joint Iranian-Syrian economic council, and also visited the South Pars gas field. In a meeting with the Iranian Minister of Trade and Industry, Reza Rahmani, Ghanem stated that the deep ties of friendship between Iran and Syria are incredibly important and strategic, and called to expand the economic ties between the countries. He stated that throughout its reconstruction process, Syria will give priority to the participation of countries that stood by its side in the campaign against terror, chief among them, Iran. Ghanem welcomed the suggestion of the Iranian minister of trade and industry to establish a joint economic bloc including Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He reported that Syria is currently promoting cooperation with the Iranian Geological Organization to examine the possibility of receiving technological assistance and tools for developing mines in Syria.The Iranian minister of trade and industry also stressed the need to bolster ties between the two countries in the spheres of industry, trade and mines. He called to establish a joint committee of experts in these fields, which would examine ways to expand cooperation between the private and public sectors in both countries. He remarked that over the past year, the volume of trade between Iran and Syria rose by 35 percent (ISNA, September 24).
- On September 26, the Iranian Minister of Defense, Amir Hatami, spoke on the phone with his Syrian counterpart, Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, and discussed with him expanding security cooperation between the two countries. Hatami stressed in his conversation with Ayyoub Iran’s willingness to cooperate with Syria in its reconstruction process. The two agreed to continue the consultation and cooperation on the bilateral and regional level and emphasized the importance of the gatherings of the joint committee for security coordination between the two countries. The Iranian minister of defense congratulated his Syrian colleague for the downing of the Israeli drones, which Syria claims to have carried out over its territory, and noted that this indicates an improvement in the air defense capabilities of the Syrian Army (ISNA, September 26).
- The Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walid al-Muallem, stressed in an interview to the Kremlin-run “Russia al-Youm” (Russia Today) TV channel (September 30), Iran’s support for Syria since the outbreak of the civil war. Al-Muallem stated that Iran was in the forefront among countries that stood by Syria in its fight against terrorism since the start of the civil war in Syria, and expanded its economic ties with Syria, particularly in the sphere of energy. Therefore, Syria is grateful to Iran and is committed to it. He added, at the same time, that the possibility of establishing permanent Iranian bases in Syria was never on the table, since Iran never made such a request.
- On September 25, the official website of the Supreme Leader of Iran published a photograph showing the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, alongside the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, and the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. It is unclear where and when the photograph was taken and whether it is a real or an edited photo, but Iranian media claimed that the photo is recent. On October 1, the website of the Supreme Leader of Iran published another photograph of the Khamenei alongside the secretary general of Hezbollah. The photographs were published alongside a wide-ranging interview with Hassan Nasrallah for the website of the Supreme Leader of Iran, in which the secretary general detailed the development of relations between Iran and Hezbollah, and between him personally and the Supreme Leader of Iran since the 1980s. In addition, Iranian TV aired (October 1), a rare interview with Qasem Soleimani focused on the 2006 Lebanon War.
Iranian Involvement in Iraq and Yemen
- The Iranian Ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, warned that Iran will forcefully respond in case of an American strike against it and will attack American forces in Iraq and everywhere else. In an interview to an Iraqi television station, Masjedi stressed that Iran is not interested in war, but will protect itself in whatever way possible if attacked (Fars, September 26). Following the statement of the ambassador, the Spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Tahseen al-Khafaji, declared that Iraq will not agree to become a battlefield in a war of other nations. He emphasized that Baghdad will not allow the United States to attack Iran from its territory, and will also not permit anyone to threaten American interests within its territory (al-Arabiya, September 28).
- On September 30, the Albu Kamal-al-Qaem border crossing was opened, which links Iraq to Syria, allowing for the renewed movement of goods and people, after it had been closed since 2012 due to the Syrian civil war. In a commentary published on the website of the Mehr news agency (October 1), it was argued that the opening of the crossing has strategic importance in bolstering the alliance between Syria, Iraq and Iran, and countering American efforts to attenuate the relations between the three countries. The opening of the crossing will also facilitate the movement of the Shi’ite militias into Syrian territory, if need be. According to the article, the opening of the crossing will allow the creation of a link between the “ground forces of the resistance axis;” will remove the limitations on daily movement between Iraq, Iran and Syria, as was the case before the emergence of ISIS; and bolster trade between the three countries. The article emphasized the concerns heard in the United States and Israel about the re-opening of the crossing, which took place despite their efforts to stymie its rehabilitation and reopening, including through the use of airstrikes. “There is no doubt that the geographic, political, economic and strategic importance of the Albu Kamal-al-Qaem crossing will bolster the power of the Resistance in the region, especially alongside the Syria-Iraq border,” concluded the article.
- The Albu Kamal ground line of supply is perceived by Iran as strategically important, as it serves as a crucial link in the land corridor Iran seeks to establish from its territory to the Mediterranean.
- In late September, the Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, visited Iraq to coordinate the Arabayeen ceremonies, in which Shi’ite pilgrims flock to sites in Iraq that are considered holy to the Shi’ite community, which take place forty days after the fast of Ashuraa’. During his visit to Baghdad, the deputy minister met with Sayed Omar al-Hakim, the head of the Shi’ite Iraqi political National Wisdom bloc. The two discussed developments in the region and bilateral relations. In the meeting, Hakim stressed the need to promote dialogue to solve disagreements in the region, highlighting Iraq’s role in bringing the different sides closer together (IRNA, September 28). In addition, Ansari met with the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and stressed to him that Iran does not want Iraq to become a scene of contestation between Iran and other countries (IRNA, September 29).
- The head of Iran’s Association of Private Banks, Kourosh Parvizian, stated in a conference focusing on Iranian exports to Iraq, that the Iranian Parsian Bank recently received the approval of the Iraqi Central Bank to open seven branches in Iraq. Two branches were already established at a cost of 100 million dollars. Parvizian mentioned that Iranian private banks are willing to provide all financial services to exporters of engineering services to Iraq (Tasnim, September 28). It should be noted that the Parsian Bank is under U.S. sanctions due to its ties to the IRGC.
- The decision of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to remove from his position a senior Iraqi Army commander was met with widespread opposition in Iraq, driven in part by claims that the decision is linked to Iran’s efforts to expand the clout of the Shi’ite Iraqi militias supported by it inside the armed forces of Iraq. In late September reports emerged about the decision of the Iraqi prime minister to remove from office Abdul Wahad al-Saadi, who served as the Commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service. Al-Saadi is seen by many in Iraq as a national hero due to the central role he played in the campaign against ISIS, including the liberation of the city of Mosul in 2017.
- According to Iraqi commentators, the decision of the Iraqi prime minister to remove al-Saadi from office was made due to pressure from Iran and the Shi’ite militias close to it due to his resistance of Iranian influence and his strong relationship with the United States. The pan-Arab paper published in London, al-Araby al-Jadeed, reported (September 29), that a number of staff changes that occurred at the top of Iraq’s armed forces, including the removal of al-Saadi, have aroused political and popular opposition in Iraq. According to Iraqi analysts, these personnel changes are connected to the growing tensions between Iran and the United States and were done as part of an effort to remove from power commanders opposed to Iran’s influence in Iraq and maintain a cooperative relationship with the United States. The paper quoted a senior former Iraqi commander who alleged that Abdul Mahdi’s decision was made due to pressure by Iran and the Shi’ite militias it backs. According to the political analyst, Nahad al-Abdullah, who spoke to the paper, the decision of the Iraqi prime minister weakens the armed forces and bolster Iran’s influence inside Iraq’s armed forces.
- The Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed forces, Mohammad Bagheri, confirmed that Iran provides assistance to the Houthi rebels in Yemen in the form of military advice. In an interview on Chinese television, Bagheri stated that Iran provided, through the IRGC and the Iranian Army, military advice, equipment and materiel to Syria and to Iraq. When addressing Iran’s role in Yemen, Bagheri denied that Iran transferred missiles to the Houthi rebels and claimed that there is no way to transfer missiles to Yemen, which is under siege, to the point that medicine can not be moved to it. However, he did confirm that Iran provided in assisting the Houthi rebels and that those responsible for the assistance are the IRGC (Tasnim, October 1).