Signs of Iranian weakness?

Concerned by regional developments, Iran is buttressing its strategic alliances; Israel should take note.

Putin and Rouhani (photo credit: REUTERS)
Putin and Rouhani
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE IRAN nuclear deal that came into effect in January 2016 (The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) was seen by the country’s leaders as a victory for the Iranian nation. Despite “hostility and trouble” from the United States, Iran extracted major gains from the nuclear talks, the culmination of a long and smart negotiation with the P5 + 1 group of nations.
Indeed, Tehran felt emboldened by its achievement and was better positioned to pursue its aggressive aims in the Middle East, stepping up its military presence in Syria and Iraq, intervening in Yemen and intensifying its ballistic missile activities.
The alliance with the Assad regime in Syria is Iran’s vital strategic asset in the region, and the Islamic Republic is doing everything in its power to guarantee the survival of the regime.
However, in spite of an extensive deployment of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “advisers” (and lately also Iranian army units), Hezbollah elite forces, and Iraqi and Afghani Shi’ite battalions, Tehran has not succeeded in stopping the advance of opposition forces in Syria’s south, north and east in 2015 and 2016. This prompted the Iranian regime to reach out to Moscow for assistance, which culminated with the deployment in September 2015 of Russian air and ground forces in the Latakia region and their massive intervention in the battles for Aleppo and Palmyra, among other fronts.
Then on August 16, in what has been described by many experts as a historic event, Russia’s long-range Tu-22M3 bombers operating from the Iranian Nojeh/Hamadan Airfield delivered their first airstrikes on terrorist targets in Syria. The bombers attacked Islamic State and al-Nusra Front facilities in Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib provinces.
The core benefit for the Russian Air Force is a drastic reduction in flying time to terrorist targets in Syria.
While some Iranian officials have strongly backed the new addition to already strong Russian-Iranian bonds, others have come to censure it, seeing in it a breach of the Iranian Constitution. Thus, Iranian Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, citing Article 146 of Iran’s constitution which forbids “establishing any kind of foreign military base on Iran’s territory, even for peaceful purposes,” denied reports that Iran was handing Russia the Nojeh military base for use on a permanent basis. Rather, he said, the move must be seen in the framework of Iran’s “cooperation with Russia because of a terrorist crisis which has been created by the US and some regional countries.”
While Iran gains the umbrella of a global power, Russia is expanding its role and presence in the Middle East.
According to Andrey V. Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, “Russia is trying to put together a broader coalition that goes beyond Russian- Iranian cooperation” and considers this operation “as another bargaining chip in [its] negotiations with the West.”
In fact, on August 18 Russia launched cruise missiles at targets in Syria from warships in the Mediterranean Sea, demonstrating that it has the “ability to strike from virtually all directions in a region where it has been reasserting its power.”
In a March 2016 article, “The Return of the Bear” in the American Foreign Policy Council’s Defense Dossier, I estimated that the longer the Russian military campaign in the region lasts, the stronger Moscow’s alliance with Iran, Hezbollah, and possibly even the Shi’ite regime in Baghdad will become. This alliance puts Israel’s strategic interests concerning Iran and Hezbollah at stake, and the Iranians will probably test its validity sooner or later.
Based upon the Israeli government’s understandings with the Russians, Jerusalem retains freedom of action in its attempts to prevent the transfer of strategic weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, in Syria or elsewhere. The surprising Iranian decision to permit Russia to use its air base for bombings in Syria also should be seen against the backdrop of the recent success of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the rebranded Nusra Front after it “split” from al-Qaida) and its local allies in breaking the siege of Aleppo, in spite of the combined Assad, Iranian and Hezbollah forces and Russian air intervention from the Khmeimim Air Base.
On a more strategic level, the Iranian leadership is possibly also worried by what seems to be an effective coordination between Israel and Russia on the Syrian front and the quick improvement in the relations between Turkish President Erdogan and Putin.
Surprisingly, Ankara has given Russia the go ahead to use its strategic Incirlik air base for operations in Syria, though no official request from Moscow has been made, Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on August 20. The base is currently being used by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Whether Yildirim was serious about the Incirlik or was floating the idea as a sign of leverage against the United States isn’t clear.
Another worry for Iran is the recent Turkish military intervention in Syria, denounced by Damascus as a breach of its sovereignty. Iran has expressed concern over Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, violating its territorial integrity “without coordination with its central government, and by overlooking its national sovereignty.” An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that the continuation of Turkey’s military presence in Syria would further complicate the situation in the Middle East.
Closer to home, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced at the beginning of June that it had arrested several Palestinians in the West Bank recruited by Hezbollah, mostly through Facebook. The cell members were instructed to commit shooting attacks or suicide bombings against Israelis and asked to recruit others to Hezbollah, as well.
IF AT first glance the arrest of several cells of Palestinians in the West Bank recruited by Hezbollah does not appear to be connected to Iran’s strategic goals, it actually reflects another aspect of its challenging strategic alliances in the region.
Hezbollah’s enhanced terrorist activity toward the West Bank can be traced to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s instruction, in a speech on Iran’s annual ‘Jerusalem Day’ in July 2014 during Israel’s “Protective Edge” Operation in Gaza, to arm the Palestinians in the West Bank.
Khamenei understood that it would be more difficult to rearm the isolated Hamas while Egypt strangled the Gaza Strip and behaved toward Hamas as a strategic enemy allied with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
He decided, therefore, to cast his lot with the Palestinians in the West Bank, hoping that the smuggling of non-sophisticated short-range rockets would threaten the Israeli heartland and help ignite a third intifada. The IRGC’s second-in-command, Brig.-Gen. Hossein Salami, declared at the end of November 2014 that “the sons of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will join hands” and transform the West Bank into a “hell”for the Zionist regime.
Iranian military support to Palestinians in the West Bank could come mainly through a terrorist infrastructure based in Jordan involving Hezbollah operatives. Indeed, in July 2015, Jordan’s military court sentenced eight Hezbollah operatives to prison for conspiring to commit major terrorist attacks against US, Israeli and other targets in Jordan using machine guns and homemade explosives.
The same month, Jordan’s security forces arrested a man with both Iraqi and Norwegian citizenships, with purported links to an Iranian group, on suspicion he planned to carry out “the most serious terrorist act in Jordan in the past decade.”
In January 2016, the Palestinian Authority security forces arrested five operatives in Bethlehem working under the auspices of Iranian orders, who were planning to establish a foothold in the West Bank and carry out attacks against Israel. They belonged to the pro-Iranian al-Sabireen organization, which has been operating in the Gaza Strip in recent years.
And, in February 2016, Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad Fateh Ali, promised that Iran would award $7,000 to the family of every Palestinian terrorist involved in the wave of lone wolf attacks in the West Bank that began in September 2015, and $30,000 to any family of terrorists whose home is demolished by Israel.
Although Israel is one of the main regional targets of Iranian military and terrorist activity, the catch is that Hezbollah’s huge missile arsenal and elite ground forces cannot be used against Israel as long as the Iranian proxy is entangled in the Syrian civil war. The attempt to build an Iranian/Hezbollah territorial platform in Syria to threaten Israel’s Golan Heights has been defused by aggressive Israeli steps since January 2015.
Iran-Hamas relations have shown ups and downs since Hamas decided to abandon the “resistance” axis with Syria in 2012 and ally with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, although the two partners still consider themselves to be strategically allied against Israel.
IN JANUARY a row erupted between Hamas and Iran when the deputy chairman of Hamas’s political bureau, Musa Abu Marzouk, blamed Iran for lying about its supposed military and financial aid to Hamas. In allying with the Saudi position about the conflict in Yemen, Abu Marzouk argued that “the Iranians have ruined the country due to their cunning policy there and the way they treated the people.”
Moreover, it is Qatar that finances most of the civil infrastructure in Gaza, and Turkey that provides its “humanitarian” supplies, in coordination with Israel, after the two settled the six-year conflict that followed Israel’s May 2010 raid on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara.
Thus, lately, Iran has been constrained to strengthening its operational relations with the small Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group and the Shi’ite pro-Iran al-Sabireen group in Gaza.
The brief deployment of Russian air forces to Iran’s Nojeh air base demonstrated the limits of the dialogue between the two governments, as the blunt Russian propaganda presented the event solely as Moscow’s strategic achievement in the region and not a product of cooperation with Iran.
Although Russia and Iran have different interests in Syria, their strategic interests converge to a high degree because Russia knows that, in the absence of Iran’s proxies on the ground, their military operations will have no chance of succeeding in the Syrian war.
It is safe to assume that the Iranian-Russian alliance will remain strong for the foreseeable future, allowing both nations to ease the isolation imposed by the US and the West, while spreading their regional influence through the use of hard power.
To secure Tehran’s trust, the Kremlin tried to widen the cooperation agenda by including Caspian-related issues, South Caucasus stability, transport corridors, energy resources and pipeline infrastructure during a trilateral summit in Baku, in early August, between presidents Putin, Hassan Rouhani (Iran) and Ilham Aliyev (Azerbaijan).
Significantly, Iran and Russia have agreed to build two new nuclear power plants in Bushehr beginning on September 10. And Putin would like OPEC and Russia to reach a deal to freeze supply of oil to the global market, except for Iran, which should be allowed to continue raising production.
Therefore, Mehdi Sanai, Iran’s ambassador to Moscow, declared on September 2 that the Iranian and Russian presidents have “efficient” and “comprehensive” interactions and that expansion of Iran- Russia ties, which has been unprecedented in the past three years, will be continued in the future.
Iran and Hezbollah have not reacted to the failure of their latest attempts to stir up terrorism and an intifada in the West Bank or to their problematic relationship with their allies in Gaza.
However, one should not underestimate their continuous efforts to strengthen the alliance with old and new Palestinian partners.
In June, Abu Marzouk praised “the support offered by Iran to the Palestinian resistance in logistics, training or funds unmatched and beyond the capabilities of other countries.” The explanation of this volte-face in the words of an anonymous senior Hamas leader cited in an Al-Monitor article: “The Syrian regime is achieving success on the ground against its opponents, Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with its war in Yemen, and Turkey is restoring relations with Israel. As a result, Hamas fears a continuation of its isolation due to regional developments.”
Hamas’s participation in the upcoming October 8 municipal elections in Gaza and the West Bank and the prospect of victory of the Islamist movement in the West Bank could have represented a new opportunity for Iran’s strategic interests in the Palestinian arena. The postponement sine die of these elections by the Palestinian High Court is possibly another setback for Iranian hopes.
The Israeli government should be attentive to these strategic developments and act in concert with the United States in order to challenge the growing Russian penetration in the Middle East, which potentially expands the “Cold War” ambience in the region, and further mitigate Iran’s destabilizing regional role, bolstered by the international legitimacy it received from the nuclear agreement.
Dr. Ely Karmon is a Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter- Terrorism (ICT) at the Herzliya based Interdisciplinary Center