23.03.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Iran is Expanding its Regional Influence in a Big Way

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Last few weeks have seen the Iranian diplomats and top officials engaging in a lot of diplomatic activity in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria, marking a systematically built web of relations that Iran is building as part of a policy based upon what its supreme leader recently described as ‘resistance.’ The emphasis on ‘resistance’ is meaningful in that it highlights the intensity of the situation as well as an Iranian resolve to tackle the way the Saudis and the Emiratis are, through the use of their money, trying to re-establish their presence in both countries to potentially base themselves closer to Iran. The Iranian supreme leader made it clear when Syria’s Assad visited Iran three weeks ago that the war in Syria was a manifestation of that very resistance against the US and its allies, and that their defeat has made them hatch new conspiracies, adding that “the issue of the buffer zone, which Americans seek to establish in Syria, is among those dangerous plots that must be categorically rejected and stood against.”

Assad’s visit proved that an American and Saudi attempt at luring Assad into a trap whereby Syria would distance itself from Iran in lieu of Saudi and US money for Syrian re-construction has failed. Assad’s was message was loud and clear and the Iranian leaders also reinforced the same when Khamenei said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran regards helping the Syrian government and nation as assisting the Resistance movement, and genuinely takes pride in it… Syria, with its people’s persistence and unity, managed to stand strong against a big coalition of the US, Europe and their allies in the region and victoriously come out of it… Iran and Syria are strategic allies and the identity and power of Resistance depend on their continuous and strategic alliance, because of which, the enemies will not be able to put their plans into action.”

The fact that Assad’s visit has come now is also evident of how Syria, after years of war, is finally emerging out of its territorial borders and thinking in regional terms, something that connects it strongly not only with Iran but also Iraq.

This was quite evident when commanders of the armed forces of Iran, Iraq and Syria met recently in Damascus and fleshed out a coordinated plan to meet the challenges in “regional security”, including the imperatives of the withdrawal of all illegally deployed forces (read: the US) from Syria.

The security dimension, however, only tells one side of the story about how Iran is beefing up its position in the region. Iran’s president Rouhani was recently in Iraq, a visit that was not just about a common policy vis-à-vis Syria and the question of the withdrawal of US forces, but also about developing an integrated regional economic space that would beef up the ‘resistance front.’

In this behalf, an agreement signed between Iran and Iraq concerns the construction of a railway connecting Iran’s Shalamcheh border crossing to Basra in Iraq. This railway connection is supposed to run through Iran and Iraq, connecting ultimately with Syria’s Mediterranean port of Latakia, a commercial port located 150 miles northwest of Damascus that, according to some media reports, Iran is trying to take control of in next few months to use for international trade.

With this port in Iranian control, Iran will be able to secure a much-desired central place in China’s Belt & Road Initiative that, too, very much runs through the same route to the Mediterranean and into Europe.

This means that not only would such projects be instrumental in Syria’s post-war reconstruction, but also bring give countries like China a direct territorial access to Syria and beyond. This also means that Iran is seeking to deal with the questions of Syrian reconstruction and circumvention of US sanctions within a wider angel of “regional networks”, entangling itself in as big and transnational projects as BRI. Rouhani’s up-coming visit to Damascus would give a major boost to this and other projects that Iran is seeking to build, emphasising the economic dimension of its relations with the Syrian state.

With thus keeping an eye on resisting the US and its allies, Iranian leadership is keen to expand its relations with Iraq and Syria beyond security matters. Already, the border between Iraq and Syria has been re-opened, which means that Iran can now have direct territorial access to Syria and even Lebanon. Not only would this re-opening boost trade among these countries, but also potentially mean yet another defeat for the U.S. policy of reversing the expanding Iranian influence in the region. This transportation route is, as such, not going to just transport goods; influence and strategic alliance would flow along as well, something that the U.S. and its allies can ill-afford at the moment.

With these developments in mind, the meaning of Khamenei’s idea of ‘resistance’ becomes clear: not only does it mean resisting the US plans to destroy the region, but also put in place an economic plan, a new geography of trade, that would thwart and neutralise the luxury of economic and financial sanctions that the US has and keeps utilising too often against its enemies.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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