The meeting between Shamkhani and the President of Iraq, Barham Salih (ILNA, March 9, 2020).
Iran, which is currently busy dealing with the Corona virus outbreak, is still maintaining its effort to affect developments in Syria and Iraq, although the magnitude of the crisis may challenge its ability to continue pursuing this policy over time.
- The Commander of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Esmail Qa’ani, visited Syria, likely in February. This was his first visit to Syria since assuming his position following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in early January. During his visit, Qa’ani visited the various fronts where IRGC forces operate, alongside Hezbollah and pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias guided by the IRGC. Meanwhile, Syrian sources reported that convoys of Iranian and Iraqi “pilgrims” continue to cross to Syria through the Albu Kamal crossing between Iraq and Syria, despite the decision of the Syrian government to close the border crossings to Jordan and Iraq.
- Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, conducted a two-day visit to Iraq, during which he met senior Iraqi government officials and the leaders of the different political currents in Iraq. Shamkhani stressed the need to continue the struggle to remove American forces from Iraq. Dispatching Shamkhani to Baghdad, as well as claims made by the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Ayad al-Allawi, that the Senior Adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ali-Akbar Velayati, recently meddled in the efforts to form a new government in Iraq, may indicate that following the assassination of Soleimani, some of his authorities, particularly in the political sphere, were delegated to other senior Iranian officials.
- Meanwhile, an escalation is apparent in the conformation between the Shia pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Western Coalition forces following a series of rocket attacks against military bases in which Coalition forces are present. In an attack carried out on March 11 against the al-Taji military base, two American servicemen and one British soldier were killed. In another strike on the base, carried out on March 14, a number of Iraqi and American soldiers were injured. Yet another attack was carried out on March 17 toward the Basmaya base south of Baghdad. The spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied Iranian involvement in the attacks and declared that the U.S. president should reexamine the presence of his forces in the region instead of leveling “groundless” accusations.
- In the economic sphere, senior Iranian officials are trying to downplay the damage done to trade relations between Iran and Iraq following the outbreak of the Corona virus. The head of the joint chamber of trade of the two countries declared that Iraq’s borders were not completely shut to the entry of Iranian goods, and that Iran can still use the northern border crossings as well as the southern crossings to move goods into Iraq.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
- The newspaper al-Araby al-Jadeed published new information about a visit Esmail Qa’ani, the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, recently made to Syria. This is Qa’ani’s first visit to Syria since assuming his position following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in early January. In the report, published on March 9, it was claimed that the visit took place in late February 2020, during which Qa’ani visited the fronts where IRGC, Hezbollah and pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias operate. Qa’ani visited the western Aleppo countryside, near the Shi’ite villages of Nubul and Zahraa’, in the southern countryside near the town of Khan Tuman, and in the Iranian base in Jabal Azzan south of Aleppo. In addition, Qa’ani visited the frontlines in Idlib, Hama and Lattakia.
An image of Esmail Qa’ani alongside the former Majlis member, Ali-Mohammad Bozorgvari, who left to the frontlines in Syria during February. It is possible that the photograph was taken during Qa’ani’s last visit to Syria in February 2020 (Telegram, March 7, 2020).
- In an interview to the Iranian news agency Mehr (March 10), Omar Rahmon, a member of Syria’s National Reconciliation Committee, stated the Qa’ani’s visit sent an important message to regional and international players and attests to Iran’s continued support for the Syrian government and the “Resistance Front” and its determination to maintain its presence in the war on terror even after Soleimani’s assassination.
- Syrian sources in Deir Ezzor reported that despite the decision of the Syrian government to close the borders with Jordan and Iraq due to the outbreak of the Corona virus, movement of Iranians and Iraqis into Syria continues through the Albu Kamal crossing connecting Syria to Iraq. The Lebanese news website al-Modon reported (March 12), based on local source in the area, that convoys of Iranian and Iraqi “pilgrims” continue to enter Syria and move around the country, despite the fears of the local population.
- On March 18, Iranian media outlets reported that a fighter in the ranks of the IRGC, Mehran Azizani, who was held captive by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) for about three weeks was executed. According to reports in Iran, this IRGC member was dispatched to Syria at the start of the civil war in the country (Fars, March 18).
Mehran Azizani who was executed in Syria
(Fars, March 18, 2020).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
- On March 7, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council arrived for a two-day visit in Iraq at the head of a delegation made up of political and security officials. During the visit, Shamkhani met with senior Iraqi officials, including President Barham Salih; the acting Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi; the Speaker of Parliament, Mohammad al-Halbousi; the head of Iraqi intelligence, Mustafa al-Kazemi; the Minister of Health, Jaafar Allawi and the leaders of Iraq’s political factions. He discussed political, security and economic issues with them. Upon his arrival in Baghdad, Shamkhani declared that the blood of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed by the United States in early January, is the guarantee for the indelible bond between the Iraqi and Iranian people.
- In the meeting with the National Security Council Adviser of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Falah Fayyad, Shamkhani expressed his country’s willingness to assist Iraq in tackling the Corona virus pandemic. The Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council also welcomed the decision adopted by the Iraqi Parliament demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. He remarked that the government, the armed forces and the Iraqi people proved in their successful campaign against ISIS that they do not need foreign presence in their country to ensure their security (Fars, March 7-8).
The meeting between Shamkhani and the President of Iraq, Barham Salih
(ILNA, March 9, 2020).
- Upon his return to Tehran, Shamkhani posted on Twitter (March 13) that during his visit to Baghdad, he asked for the assistance of Iraqi authorities to locate the local agents who assisted the United States in assassinating Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
- The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the March 12 attacks by the United States against targets of the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, which were a retaliation for the March 11 rocket attack on the al-Taji military base north of Baghdad, where Coalition forces are present, which resulted in the death of two American soldiers and one British servicewoman. On March 14, another attack was carried out against the al-Taji base, during which dozens of rockets were fired at the base, resulting in the injury of a number of Iraqi and American soldiers. A previously unknown Iraqi group, known as “The Band of the Revolutionaries” (Isabat a-Thaereen) claimed responsibility for attacking the base. On March 17, a third rocket attack was carried out in the span of a week, this time against the Basmaya military base south of Baghdad, where forces belonging to the International Counter-ISIS Coalition are stationed.
- The Speaker of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Mousavi, stated that the United States can not blame others for the consequences of its illegal presence in Iraq and the reaction of the Iraqi people to assassinating and killing Iraqi commander and fighters. The statement also called on President Trump to seriously examine the conduct and behavior of his forces in the region instead of taking dangerous steps and making unfounded accusations (Fars, March 13). A number of fighters of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias were killed in the American strikes against targets of pro-Iranian militias in the Salah a-Deen, Babel and Karabala south of Baghdad, and Basra in southeastern Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that it carried out at least five strikes against targets associated with Kataeb Hezbollah, and that among the targets hit were ammunition depots, which contained weapons used against American and Coalition forces (Reuters, March 13).
- Iran is yet to respond to the appointment of the former governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurfi, as Iraq’s new prime minister. Iranian media did report, however, about the opposition of Iraqi Shi’ite groups, including the al-Fath Coalition that represents the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, to al-Zurfi’s nomination to the position by Iraq’s President Bahram Salih (Fars, March 18).
- The Head of the Joint Iranian-Iraqi Chamber of Commerce, Yahya Al-e Eshaq, stated in an interview to the economics-focused news website Eqtesad Online (March 15) that the trade relations between Iran and Iraq continue despite the outbreak of the Corona virus. He remarked that the borders of Iraq have not been closed to the entry of Iranian goods, and even if some border crossings are closed, it would be possible to continue exporting Iranian goods through other crossing. Al-e Eshaq added that the northern borders between the two countries are still open and that the southern borders are occasionally closed. Al-e Eshaq stressed that that although the trade relations between the two countries have been harmed in the short-term, they will return to their normal course soon. According to him, the two countries are trying to solve the medical issues related to the Corona virus to be able to continue trade between them.
The head of the Joint Iranian-Iraq Chamber of Commerce
(Eqtesad Online, March 15, 2020).