The Military Agreement between Syria and Iran

Commentary:  An important strategic fact is that this new agreement pushes the traditional relationship between Syria and Russia aside, both defensively and technologically and politically. It is an attempt at strategic "substitution" that could have long-term effects.

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On July 8 last, Iranian Chief-of-Staff Mohammad Baqeri and Syrian Defence Minister Ali Abdullah Ayub signed an agreement in Damascus - defined as "comprehensive" - to strengthen military cooperation between the two countries.

As they both said, this agreement strengthens military cooperation between Iran and Syria, especially in relation to the expected increase in U.S. pressure on the region. Furthermore, Iran will strengthen the Syrian air defence systems, in particular, as well as improve the training of troops and the armament currently available to the Syrian military.

On July 1, Erdogan, Putin and Hassan Rouhani had met - by videoconference - within the so-called "Astana format" to regulate their relations within Syrian territory and to plan a future peace treaty with Syria, with the exclusion of the United States and other Western countries.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister has said: "We will not allow Iran to establish military presence in Syria". It is an entirely natural choice, but we do not believe that - in a perspective of limited military confrontation between Israel and Iran - the United States would provide more than symbolic help to the Jewish State.

An important strategic fact is that this new agreement pushes the traditional relationship between Syria and Russia aside, both defensively and technologically and politically.

Russia has already made its Pantsir and S-300 missiles operational on Syrian territory, but rumours are rife within the Syrian Armed Forces that these weapon systems have not deliberately been able to hit Israeli weapons and air raids in Jerusalem.

The issue is clear: Russia does not activate its S-300 missiles because it has no intention of hitting the Jewish State. Obviously, however, this is certainly not in the plans of Syria, which regards the air threat from Israel as an existential danger for the Syrian State. Iran’s role will be to hit Israel from Syrian territory or to penetrate the Israeli region with its own special forces.

Certainly the sign of partial disengagement by Assad's Syria from the Russian Federation is significant, although it does not appear to be decisive, considering that both Russia and Iran keep on supporting Syria. 

Nevertheless, it is an attempt at strategic "substitution" that could have long-term effects.

Furthermore, some Russian analysts note that - also in the hot phases of the war between Assad and the West-supported "rebels" - the presence of the Iranian troops was scarce, while many Shiite volunteers from various areas, Pasdaran and many military advisors were sent from Iran to Syria.

The Iranian presence in the Syrian war has never been massive but, certainly, it is still very important.

Iran, in particular, has funded and trained the pro-Assad armed groups, but currently the Syrian President needs to stop - certainly without Russian qualms - the Israeli air attacks, which often hit areas where also the Iranian military operate.

Certainly the Israeli operations in Syria have also caused significant damage to Iran’s nuclear networks and systems.

A fire in Natanz, at the beginning of July, as well as the explosion west of Tehran a few days ago, and the further explosions in Garmdareh and Qods. On June 26, 2020, there was a fire in a missile factory in Khojr, and another one in Shiraz, in addition to the explosion in a medical clinic on June 30, with 19 victims, as well as a great fire on July 3, again in Shiraz, and finally a fire and an explosion in Ahwaz. 

Such a rational and well-scheduled sequence shows that these incidents, often trivialized by the Iranian government and its propaganda, are anything but random.

Obviously, however, they are important sites for the Iranian nuclear project: for example, the explosion of July 1 hit the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Centre (ICAC) in the Natanz area. 

However, all the Iranian nuclear experts and technicians, also those within the Tehran project, assume a delay in the implementation of the entire project by at least one or two years. 

Nevertheless, let us see the dates and strategic significance of Iran’s nuclear power: in May 2019 Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would unilaterally but progressively withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by Iran in 2015 together with the P5+1, i.e. the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union. 

It should be recalled that the United States had walked out of the JCPOA a year earlier, in May 2018. 

The "maximum possible pressure", i.e. the maximum tightening of sanctions, announced by the United States at the time of its withdrawal from the Vienna Agreement, led to some demonstrations in November, harshly repressed by the Iranian regime, which left as many as 180 dead on the ground.

It is likely, however, that by permanently and systematically breaking the Vienna Agreement of 2015, Iran wants to show signs not of constructing the nuclear bomb, but rather of putting pressure on the international community to lift sanctions. 

Butter first, then guns - just to quote an old joke. 

Where could Iran launch its nuclear bomb? On Israel, which it certainly wants to "erase from the map", but with the very serious danger of a nuclear counter-operation by Israel against the most important economic and military sites and the most populous Iranian cities? 

On Iraq, which has already a Shiite majority, currently well controlled by the Iranian Intelligence Services? 

Or on Saudi Arabia? Every abstractly possible choice has many more side effects than positive and rational evaluations. But Iranian decision-makers are not fools or minus habens.

If, however, Iran reduces its JCPOA compliance every two months - as it seems to do today - it will have as many as three opportunities, from now until the next U.S. elections in November, to "harden" its nuclear system.

This will certainly have a significant effect on the U.S. political and electoral debate. This, too, will be a well-organized effect, rationally chosen by the Ayatollahs.

Obviously, President Trump shall strengthen the U.S. military system in the Middle East and this will certainly displease a large part of his voters. Iran will implement its basically non-conventional (but not yet nuclear) strategy, which will consist of attacks on tankers in the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf; of "heavy" operations by the Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq; of a probable operation in the Shiite area of Afghanistan, capable of shattering the very tenuous agreement between the United States and the Taliban of February, 2020; of a strengthening of the presence of the Houthi Shiite "rebels" or, finally, of another probable Iranian operation in the Lebanon and, precisely, this agreement between Iran and Syria.

Iran’s initial criterion is that of "strategic patience".

This in no way implies the exclusion of nuclear armament, but concerns the use of its conventional forces, while nuclear weapons will be launched on the aggressor or on Israel, only in case of an extreme existential danger for the State.

On the other hand, the Iranian "strategic patience" has a further purpose: to separate the EU from the United States and create an economic corridor between Iran and some European countries.

So far the EU has not shown to be able to react autonomously to the U.S. policy towards Iran: two years have elapsed and hence, with the aforementioned speech, Rouhani has adopted a "tougher" strategy.

Therefore, the Iranian President has announced that Iran will continue to move away from the JCPOA provisions until the other signatories to the 2015 Vienna Agreement ensure Iran free access to the world financial system and the free sale of Iranian oil.

In other words, any "hardening" of the Ayatollah regime on the nuclear issue will be followed by a possible ad hoc opening by Iran to European markets.

If the EU agrees on this project, from then on Iran will stop its withdrawal from the JCPOA, otherwise its leaving the Vienna Agreement will continue at the usual pace.

So far, however, the United States has further strengthened its system of sanctions, while the EU has threatened to initiate the JCPOA dispute settlement system.

Iran's final walking out of the Vienna Agreement has therefore materialized again, but both the United States and the EU - which has the same foreign policy as an ant nest - should realize that the non-nuclear and nuclear threat from Iran is terribly serious and could negatively affect the primary interests of both Western regions.

There is above all the blackmail to Israel, which is also terribly serious, even if Iran were to imagine a "Samson-style" nuclear strategy, i.e. its elimination together with the enemy. 

Moreover, the Jewish State rightly considers the EU a den of anti-Semites that does no foreign policy (by now, not even its Member States), while the United States conceives and develops its foreign policy, be it good or bad, only for the time horizon of a mid-term election.

Israel instead has a very stable military and strategic policy, but it inevitably needs equally stable allies.

It is no coincidence, in fact, that over the last two months Iran has strengthened not only the project for leaving the JCPOA, but also its various conventional military operations or those of its proxies in the Greater Middle East: just think about the capture of the British oil tanker about a year ago, as well as the two tankers seized - probably by the Pasdaran - in the Gulf of Oman in June 2019, and the many similar operations carried out by the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran’s idea is to make Europeans feel above all the "weight" of being in agreement with the United States as to the sanctions against Iran, as well as hit the supply lines of the European countries - coincidentally of the closest ones to the United States’ positions, such as Great Britain - to make them understand that Iran can significantly harm them without resorting to a conventional or nuclear war.

The Iranian decision-makers’ "policy line" is basically still the one established by Ayatollah Khamenei, shortly after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, which defines two basic criteria: Iran will continue to implement the Vienna Agreement, although at a very slower pace, but - on the other hand - Iran is ready for a possible definitive withdrawal from the JCPOA. 

This is exactly the best definition of “strategic patience”.

Moreover, President Trump's strategic position is non-existent: what will the United States do if Iran leaves the JCPOA definitively? Will it impose other sanctions in addition to the current ones? It is even hard to imagine them. 

What would the EU do in the event of a crisis - even only conventional – stopping the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf? 

What would be the possibilities of serious and effective political pressure on Iran to stop its conventional operations, which could safely reach even the Eastern Mediterranean region? 

As to Iran’s "bimonthly" breaking of the JCPOA, the Iranian leaders have exceeded the limit set by the Vienna Agreement on the production of heavy water. They have also removed all limits to research for centrifuges - in fact, those destroyed in Natanz were of the latest model - and they have finally started again to enrich uranium at the Fordow facility. Indeed, everything seems to have been put in place by Iran to calibrate - slowly but surely -  the pressure on the United States and on the inept EU leaders, while it should also be recalled that, due to its geological characteristics, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant is very hard to wipe out with a targeted attack.

What are the Iranian strategic prospects during the progressive restriction of the JCPOA's validity? Missile attacks on Saudi Arabian territory, as has already happened? 

If the United States were to lift sanctions, Iran would demonstrate it can defeat the "great Satan" and Iran’s demands, especially to the EU, would increase. They would concern relations between the United States and Israel.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group