After only just settling into its role in the new Mideast duopoly, Iran must now contend with a resurgent US presence that raises the stakes and threatens to undermine its power across the region
Things had been looking quite up for Iran in Syria. Advances were made every week, Hezbollah had trained thousands of newly experienced recruits. Iran was powerful in Iraq and had preserved its bridge to Lebanon. It had sacrificed some direct control over Bashar al-Assad, but in return gained Russian military support and a buffer against any future American actions in Syria. The Islamic State was losing territory, Aleppo fell, Idlib was falling. Saudi-supported rebel forces were collapsing, and Saudi Arabia was facing heavy criticism for indiscriminately bombing civilians in Yemen, more so than Assad was criticized at times.
What could go wrong?
Perhaps confidence got the best of Assad; perhaps he was encouraged by Rex Tillerson’s declaration of non-involvement in the process of selecting who leads the country after (and if) peace is reached. Whatever the reasons, the bombing of a small Syrian airbase in response to the chemical attack in Idlib Province will have particularly negative repercussions on Iranian power in Syria, if not Iraq and elsewhere.
The level to which Iran has been involved in Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon has always depended on how much the US has cared about each country – never has it had much to do with Iran. No American president since the 1979 revolution has felt positive about relations with Iran, and true normalization remains far away despite the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The unfortunate truth for Iran, then, is that as American interest waxes towards Syria, Iran will be forced either to wane or to face confrontation. Certainly, with Russia behind it, Tehran can afford this more than without Moscow’s support. The aversion that Putin has with direct conflict vis-à-vis America makes it uncertain that such support will continue, however. If Putin were to risk diplomatic war with the unpredictable American president, the results could be disastrous. Therefore, it seems more likely that peace will be the objective, not war.
Why peace is bad for Iran
This is problematic for Iran. The policy promoted by Javad Zarif, its verbose foreign minister, is one of opposition to the US, blind promotion of Assad (Zarif condemned the chemical attack while promoting conspiracy theories on its authenticity), and a penchant for disregard for the US. This worked well while Barack Obama was president – he sought to solidify his legacy with the nuclear agreement, and avoided conflict in Syria, despite attempting to act in 2013.
In other words, under Obama, America was involved in the limited military action in Syria, withdrew from Iraq, and signed an accord that legitimized Iran for the West. The theme was simple: détente with America allowed Iran to pursue military actions without pause.
In marked contrast to this pattern, Donald Trump has declared a deep opposition to the nuclear accord, seems undecided on Iraq, and has taken serious action in Syria that may be followed by more involvement. The airstrike was not as severe as the threat of more to come – and demonstrated an unpredictability not common in American foreign policy.
It makes Iranian involvement perilous and threatens to undermine the continued rule of Assad when if an agreement is reached with American endorsement. Iran cannot hope for the same reach in Syria if Trump pushes for Assad to leave, and might find supply lines to Hezbollah cut both on the ground and by US Navy patrols offshore. The possibility of American action in Iraq would compound these problems further.
Rouhani and Trump: no cooperation
President Hassan Rouhani is constrained by these dangers as much as he is limited by the fervent anti-Americanism still present in the government, not to mention the streets. Opposition to dialogue with America is even worse now that Trump’s attempted bans on travel to the US have twice blacklisted Iranian citizens.
No diplomatic action can be taken when Trump’s rhetoric is opposed to negotiation with Tehran, and when one of his campaign promises was to undo the nuclear deal that has been a hallmark of Rouhani’s legacy. This Iran finds itself in a bind. It has interests it needs to preserve in Syria, and soldiers on the ground at this very moment. Yet any confrontation with America might be ruinous to the small empire of influence it now holds in the Middle East.
If Iran loses this power, it would have to fear not only American interference in its neighborhood but a Saudi attempt to capitalize on this. The Saudis are engaged directly in Yemen and indirectly in funding extremist rebels in Syria. They have much to gain by American involvement in Syria and even more to gain by Iran’s retreat. Such a coup would mean several steps back for the work undertaken by Tehran since the Iran-Iraq War towards expanding its footprint outside of its borders.