THE last one month has been very rude to Iran, which is suddenly finding itself in a very tight corner. In the first week of May, President Donald Trump abruptly decided to execute his campaign promise and take the United States out of the international agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme on the pretext of a vague and trivial excuse of redesigning a new deal on the same subject matter. Then, with the gape of a couple of days, it suffered a major blow to its interests in Baghdad, where its political allies faced a major thrashing at the hands of a centrist, anti-sectarian and broad nationalist political bloc led by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who opposes Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs, took an emphatic lead in last month’s parliamentary elections. And, to add salt to the injury, while the Iranians were busy in damage control after these two grisly episodes, Israel suddenly intensified its battering of Iranian military targets in Syria right under the nose of the Russians.
The situation is very tricky for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who has many things at the stake in this whole mess. On the home front, courtesy these consecutive fiascos in the foreign policy area, pressure is being built on Rouhani by the extremist opponents, who are anxiously waiting for the appropriate pretext to launch a movement to dislodge him. Being a shrewd and very calculated strategist, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has found a golden opportunity to strike ruthlessly hard and tighten the noose around Tehran’s neck. With the finesse of an expert artist, Netanyahu has been manoeuvring the situation to Israel’s advantage. On May 8, President Trump announced unilateral exit from the nuclear treaty with Iran, the very next day Netanyahu was in Moscow for a day-long series of meetings with Russian President Putin. He almost spent 10 hours with Putin – for a string of bilateral talks as well as to participate in several events to mark the 73rd anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. He went to Moscow to discuss and finalize the arrangements for keeping Iran and its proxies away from Israel’s border with Syria. Apparently, he was successful in merely formalizing an understanding with Putin that has long been in the making.
Though, within a week after Netanyahu-Putin meeting, Rouhani sent his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Moscow to seek re-assurance from the Russians – and to assess the mood in the Russian capital. As expected, the Russians did not give a clear answer to Javad Zarif, however, the Israelis conveyed a direct message to Tehran by further escalating the pounding of the Iranian targets in Syria. Three years back when the first Russian Sukhoi fighter jet landed In Syria to salvage the Assad regime which was on the brink of complete collapse, Tehran wholeheartedly welcomed this development with high expectations that the Russian involvement would directly bolster the falling fortunes of Bashar al Assad and reverse the whole scenario.
The expectations were right. Putin, whose main objective was the survival of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria to keep the already debilitated Russian sway intact in the Middle East, had a shared interest with Iran, which sees Syria as strategic bastion of its influence in the region. Iran contributed the ground forces, not of course its own troops but its proxy Lebanese Hezbollah and thousands of “volunteers” joining the Fatemiyoun brigades to protect the collapsing Assad regime. Fearing that coffins coming home would directly erode his personal popularity, Putin, did not take the risk of sending too many ground troops in Syria and preferred to provide the air-power.
The combination of Russian Sukhoi fighter jets bombarding rebel territories from the skies, and Iranian-backed ground fighters mopping up the survivors, worked very well and eventually rescued Bashar al-Assad. Now that the war in Syria has been effectively tilted in Assad’s favour, the Russians, for obvious reasons, have less need for Tehran’s support on the ground. And this is the major dilemma of Tehran in the Syrian imbroglio. A new power-equilibrium is emerging in Syria that is coercing all the stake holders to redefine their respective positions. The equation is very awkward. Putin has no plans at all to withdraw from Syria. The hefty share in the lucrative reconstruction projects in Syria and a secure access to warm-water ports on the Mediterranean are more than compelling reasons to justify Putin’s plan for a long term stay in Syria. Iran also does not want to leave, but Israel considers the Iranian long-term presence as a serious threat. Since Russia has little need for Iran now, Tehran is increasingly finding it difficult to retain its clout there. During his last meeting with Putin in Moscow, Netanyahu assured him two things very clearly. One, Israel has no plan to be directly or indirectly involved in the battle of power in Damascus, and two, Israel will be very selective in targeting the Iranian-backed elements – sparing the ground forces, while attacking the convoys and depots of advanced missiles that could be used in the future to strike Israel.
Putin seems to be convinced that Israel will be very careful in targeting the elements that Russia needs to strengthen the position of Bashar al Assad – a kind of validation of the fact that both countries were never on the opposite sides in this war. Putin also knows well that Israel has enough capability to disrupt Russia’s long term strategic plans in the region, thus he is expected to put his weight behind Israel in case it is engaged in a full-fledged war against Iran on the Syrian soil. On the other hand, the irony of the course is that, after President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran needs the commercial ties with Moscow more than ever. Benjamin Netanyahu has not only intensified the attacks on Iranian-backed elements in Syria to push them away from the Israeli borders, but also on the diplomatic front he has been trying to squeeze Tehran to the limit of helplessness. In order to push for his uncompromising stance on the Iran nuclear deal and to muster support for his rhetoric, Netanyahu has been globe-trotting, going almost every important capital – Washington, Moscow, London, Paris and Berlin. Pressure is mounting on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has very limited options available in his bag to extricate Iran out of this muddle.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Karachi.