Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Syria not part of Iran

Iran has been trying to link its nuclear programme to regional issues, raising the question of whether it regards Syria as an Iranian province, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In a move that has stirred controversy among the Arab countries, Iran has submitted a proposal to the P5+1 group composed of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Germany and in charge of negotiating Iran’s nuclear programme, asking that the Syrian and Bahraini crises be included in the talks to take place in Kazakhstan on 26 February.

Iranian officials hope that the proposal will effectively merge the future of Syria and Bahrain with the prospects for Iran’s nuclear programme with the approval of the international parties, constituting an audacious move to place its ambitions in Bahrain and Syria on the negotiating table as if it had legitimate rights in those two countries.

The move follows reports in the US media of the presence of Iranian combat units in Syria, together with an attempt by Iran to turn Syria into an “Iranian province”, as one Iranian cleric declared recently.

Such statements have shocked Syrian public opinion, especially in the opposition to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The international community has also rejected them, though they have been ignored by the Syrian regime.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that US and Arab officials had said that Iran and its agents in Lebanon had formed militias inside Syria consisting of 50,000 fighters to protect Iranian interests should the Al-Assad regime fall.

The report added that the militias were currently fighting alongside government troops to prop up the Al-Assad regime, but that Tehran’s long-term goal was to form a network of agents in case Syria becomes embroiled in ethnic and sectarian battles.

The West is concerned about what Iran may be plotting in Syria, while the Syrian opposition, which has long accused Tehran of financially and militarily assisting the regime, has reminded the world that Iran is “part of the Syrian crisis” and cannot be part of the solution.

Meanwhile, Iran has denied the reports, with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehman Parast saying that “the Syrian people, not Iranian militias, are supporting the regime in confronting the terrorists.” Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the reports were intended to “mislead public opinion”.

A few days after the reports surfaced, Iran made its proposal on nuclear talks with the West, declaring that it wanted to negotiate the futures of Syria and Bahrain and include the fate of the two Arab states in talks on Iranian domestic issues.

Despite this interference in the affairs of sovereign Arab countries, Tehran has refused to allow the participation of Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the negotiations with the P5+1 group, according to statements by the Chairman of Iran’s National Security Council Alaaeddin Bouroujerdi, who said that adding these two countries would “complicate” the situation.

Saudi Arabia, a heavyweight on matters pertaining to Iran’s influence in the region and a key supporter of the armed and political opposition in Syria, led the response to Iran’s proposals.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal said his country would reject any compromise on the Iranian nuclear issue. “An agreement must be reached with Iran, not compromises,” Al-Faisal said, adding that Iran “should respect international agreements”.

“It’s not a matter of choices, and we are not looking for a compromise solution. Instead, we want a solution that prevents the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East,” Al-Faisal said, warning that were Tehran allowed to possess nuclear weapons these would “spread to other countries” in the region.

The Syrian opposition condemned the Iranian proposals, claiming that the Syrian regime “has sold Syria to Iran”. Despite this, it said, Syria would remain an independent sovereign state that has no links with Tehran, which “has no future” in Syria.

“This proposal directly violates the sovereignty of two Arab states that Iran wants to occupy,” Zoheir Salem, director of the Arab Orient Centre for Strategic and Civilisational Studies and a member of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The Iranian plan is more than just Iranian obtuseness, and it deserves more than just condemnation,” Salem said, adding that Iran was offering to abandon its nuclear programme “in return for its being allowed to annex Bahrain and occupy Syria through its agent Bashar Al-Assad.”

A Western diplomatic source said that the Iranian offer was an attempt to preempt talks between Russia and the US on Middle East issues and an attempt to use the Syrian crisis as a bargaining chip.

“Iran’s leadership wants to block discussion between the two major powers on issues such as the Syrian crisis, the Iranian nuclear issue and other matters in Yemen and Bahrain,” he explained. “It wants to tell these two countries that it has strong bargaining chips that it can use before they reach an agreement.”

Meanwhile, the speaker of Iran’s Shura Council, Ali Larijani, said his country was concerned about the deployment of NATO Patriot missile in Turkey on the border with Syria, even though Iran does not share a border with Syria and the missiles are hundreds of kilometres away.

Larijani said that Iran would do everything it could to halt this “Western expansion”.

Iranian cleric Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar Strategic Base, an organisation established to fight Iran’s “soft war” abroad, said that Syria was “Iran’s 35th province”. Should “the enemy attack us to occupy Syria or Al-Ahwaz, we should give the priority to keeping Syria. If we lose Syria, we will not be able to keep Tehran,” Taeb said.

Taeb advocated further support for the Syrian regime in managing urban warfare, saying that “the Iranian government has suggested forming mobile forces for urban warfare composed of 60,000 fighters to be in charge of the fighting inside Syrian cities instead of the Syrian army.”

Taeb’s statements, in which he said Syria was more important than Iran’s Al-Ahwaz province, home to an Arab majority and 90 per cent of Iran’s oil fields, stirred huge controversy in local and international political circles.

The Syrian opposition described Taeb’s statements as “sordid remarks” and “part of Iran’s doctrinal Shia mindset that views Syria as a key Iranian province”. Iran is the “key partner of the tyrant [Al-Assad] in his plot against Syria, if not the leader of the conspiracy to destroy Syria and its identity.”

Paul Salem, a researcher at the Carnegie Centre for International Peace, warned against Iranian attempts to take advantage of the Syrian crisis. “Iran has a history of taking advantage of chaos, even without conspicuously taking over governance,” Salem said.

“Hizbullah emerged during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s when Iran took advantage of Shia grievances in Lebanon, for example, and this was the same method it employed in Iraq during the chaos that followed the US-led invasion.”

Tehran is trying hard to prop up its influence in Syria, which is why it continues to provide financial and military support to the Syrian regime and its irregular armed militias.

These militias have a reputation for carrying out revenge killings against regime opponents, and the opposition claims that Shia militias loyal to Hizbullah and Alawite activists from Al-Assad’s ruling sect have been trained by Hizbullah officers and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

This could explain why several Hizbullah commanders have been killed by the revolutionaries in Syria, and why several members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been arrested and recently returned to Iran as part of prisoner exchanges.

Bashar Al-Issa, an exiled Syrian opposition figure, summarised the viewpoint of most Syrian sects. “Iran’s diplomacy has incessantly misled the world by saying that it has good intentions in Syria,” Al-Issa told the Weekly. “But the truth of the matter is that it supplies the regime in Damascus with fighters, expertise and banned weapons, while blackmailing the world about playing an effective role in order to distract it from its nuclear activities.”

“Iran can never be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis because of its Shia ideology that is organically linked to the Syrian regime. It is an alliance of strategic interests that are deep-set and extensive. At the same time, the two regimes are deliberately trying to create a feud between the Sunni and Shia worlds.”

Some members of the Syrian opposition have tried to connect with Iran in order to try to convince it to abandon the Syrian regime by promising to maintain a reasonable relationship with any future Syrian government. 

However, Iran’s arrogant statements and its interference in supporting the Syrian regime have shown just how absurd it would be to rely on Iran in helping to resolve the Syrian crisis, since it is largely Iranian influence that is allowing the conflict to continue.

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