Counting the costs
For all their anti-western slogans, there is nothing ‘radical’ in any of the Tehran regime factions, writes Yassamine Mather
Following the protests of late December and early January in Iran, the question of Tehran’s support for Bashar al-Assad and its military and civilian interventions in Syria and Iraq have become a major topic of discussion. In addition, some Iranian commentators, inside and outside Iran, have posed the question of whether Iran can become ‘another Syria’.
In some ways it is inevitable that the question would be posed, given some of the slogans seen on the protests. Military intervention in Syria while the Iranian government claims it cannot afford basic welfare services for its own citizens, is deeply unpopular. There is also the fear that US-style regime change, far from creating ‘democracy’, would lead to disintegration and chaos.
Over the last few years, the political argument put forward by all factions of the government in Tehran has been that if Iran does not fight Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, the Sunni jihadists will take their war to Iran. While this is obviously exaggerated, one cannot deny that those who have financed IS, as well as backing Al Nusra in Syria, consider Iran their main enemy. Sponsoring jihadists in Syria and Iraq remains part of a plan to reduce Tehran’s influence in the region. Having said that, there are no signs that IS is making headway in a mainly Shia country, where the 30-year rule of political Islam has ensured that the overwhelming majority of the opposition to the theocratic regime can now be found amongst secular youth.
Soon after the recent protests the BBC Persian’s Middle East correspondent, Mehrdad Farahmand, wrote a piece entitled ‘Can Iran become another Syria?’, in which he argued that such a scenario is indeed possible. I am not convinced by the arguments he puts forward - in fact I believe it is precisely the constant references to that possibility, and the subsequent disaster that would engulf Iran, that has kept the corrupt rulers of the Islamic Republic in power. However, the arguments are worthy of debate.
Farahmand dismisses the claim put forward by sections of the opposition that Iranians will reject violence. Instead he reminds us that under different circumstances both those who are in power - as well as those who have become superrich as a result of their association with the Islamic republic - have resorted to savage oppression. He also argues that the armed opposition to the Shia state does not need to take the form of IS - other national or religious groups could take its place. Again, although one cannot dismiss the argument out of hand, so far, despite the real anger and hatred displayed against the regime, there are no signs that we are witnessing the beginnings of a civil war.
The violent protests of December and January have actually been the exception to the rule, although that has a lot to do with the current balance of forces, where the regime’s supporters are armed and organised, while the opposition is not. Very few will volunteer to take part in such an unequal confrontation. However, the administration of president Donald Trump is constantly threatening to walk out of the 2015 nuclear deal and, if this happens and new sanctions are imposed on Iran, this might well encourage the more hard-line sections of the Shia government and Revolutionary Guards to do ‘something stupid’, such as attacking US navy vessels in the Persian Gulf. This would offer an excuse to both the United States and Israel to attack Iran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear sites.
While the regime’s military forces and associated civilian armed groups, such as the feared Bassij Revolutionary Guards, are forced to turn their attention to the foreign enemy, an embattled government, weakened by recent protests, would be less able to suppress the opposition and under such circumstances we could witness violence from both sides - a potential civil war.
I have to stress we are nowhere near such a scenario at the moment and it looks like a combination of two factors will delay such a situation:
1. US allies have so far held back Trump’s plans for starting a new confrontation with Iran in the Middle East. The US representative in the United Nations - the not so bright neo-Christian Zionist, Nikki Haley - has been humiliated more than once by the security council and general assembly over a vote denouncing the Iranian government’s oppression of protests. In the security council, in addition to traditional adversaries Russia and China, close allies of the US, including France and Sweden, warned against “instrumentalisation” of the protests “from the outside”.1
2. The various factions of the Islamic government in Tehran - including the more conservative elements, who are major beneficiaries from the unequal distribution of capital and wealth in Iran - are unlikely to unleash an attack on the US navy or allow their allies in Lebanon to undertake any military operation that will endanger the regime’s survival.
In this respect, for all their anti-western slogans, there is nothing ‘radical’ in any of the Tehran regime factions. Their common economic interests and fear of the masses will ensure that at the end of the day they will be political allies. The recent protests have united them more than ever before, as the level of hatred they face amongst the majority of ordinary Iranians finally begins to sink in.
There is another aspect to Iran’s involvement in Syria. In the last few months sections of the regime have promised their supporters that, after all the fighting, loss of life and military expense arising from the Syrian conflict, Iran’s economy will now begin to benefit from trade and reconstruction in ‘post-war Syria’. (Many would argue that, given the failure of yet another round of peace talks in late January, Turkey’s military intervention in Afrin and the prospect of Assad remaining in power, it is premature to talk of Syria in those terms.)
The capital-owning sections of the Revolutionary Guards, with their major ‘holdings’, have proclaimed that Iran will benefit from the lucrative economic deals that come with the ‘reconstruction’ of Syria. Lebanese sources have in the past quoted Assad saying he will not allow western firms to bid for any of the projects currently being considered (although no doubt most western companies will in any case have reservations about investing in a war-torn country at a time of economic uncertainty).
Apparently there is even a section called ‘Headquarters for Syrian Development and Cooperation’ in Iran’s Chamber of Commerce - currently Iran is a major exporter to Syria of all types of goods, from flour to medicine, from dairy products to antibiotic serums. In 2017, Iranian private companies, together with semi-private firms linked to the Revolutionary Guards, signed a number of deals to rebuild telephone networks, mines and power stations in a number of Syrian cities, including Aleppo and Homs. According to various Iran-based websites, the export of cement to Syria is already booming, for instance.
However, when it comes to what is labelled the ‘Marshal Plan for the reconstruction of Syria’, the Russians have the upper hand. Two weeks ago the website Tabnak,2 which is associated with former Iranian presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaee (whose economic interests are linked to his involvement in the Revolutionary Guards), removed notices calling on Iranian firms to bid for reconstruction contracts in Syria. The move coincided with president Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Assad and led to rumours that Iranian companies will not after all get their share of those ‘reconstruction’ contracts. Before this there were hopes that Iranian oil interests could benefit from the construction of a refinery in Syria.
According to the Foreign Policy journal, in November 2016, Damascus pledged to give Moscow priority in awarding contracts.3 A pair of Kremlin-linked energy firms have already started doing business in oil, gas and mining in areas where IS has been ejected. The two countries are even considering creating a new joint bank to smooth such transactions.
The journal adds that the total cost of reconstruction in Syria will be between $200 billion and $350 billion, depending on whose estimate you read - in addition to Russia, China, North Korea and even Brazil seem to be benefiting from contracts. In this scramble for lucrative deals, it is not clear how much Iran can play a part. Those sections of the regime which had justified the political and economic cost of intervention in Syria with the promise of long-term economic benefits will face many questions.