Iran’s new Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian recently visited Baghdad and Damascus where he met with his counterparts along with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Earlier, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi announced the steps that the Iranian government was taking along with its regional partners to confront US sanctions. Abdollahian had referred to US sanctions as a form of “economic terrorism.” Considering other Iranian interactions in the region, the aim behind Abdollahian’s visit to Iraq and Syria was to strengthen the “axis of resistance” by furthering Tehran’s influence in both countries.
Abdollahian visited Damascus after participating in the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership. Syria was not invited to the conference, indicating the Syrian regime’s regional and global isolation. Iran is Syria’s major ally, and because of this relationship it has competed to take control over significant Syrian economic sectors such as energy and infrastructure. The Syrian regime needs strong economic support as US sanctions have continuously targeted commercial entities that interact with it. Among the most important Iranian entities operating in Syria is the IRGC-owned Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, an engineering company, although in recent years it has widened its operations and is now involved in the mining, agricultural, and telecommunications sectors in Syria. Furthermore, several Iranian enterprises operating under the umbrella of MAPNA Group have significant stakes in Syrian thermal power plants and are involved in energy installation and generation as well as in the provision of other services to Damascus. Similarly, Iran is deeply entrenched in several development projects in Iraq, especially in the energy and construction sectors. Earlier, Iran had lessened its gas supply to Iraq over non-payment of its debts resulting in Baghdad experiencing severe power shortages. Recently, Iran halted its gas exports completely to Iraq. The gas crisis highlights Baghdad’s dependence on Iran for this important energy source. As Iraq prepares itself for its upcoming parliamentary elections in October, Iran’s interference in Iraqi politics is likely to be significant. Iran has kept close links with major political blocs in Iraq and recently the Fatah Alliance announced the head of the Iran-backed Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, as the frontrunner to lead the next Iraqi government. Earlier in August, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Ali Shamkhani, met with the Syrian and Iraqi foreign ministers in Tehran to discuss regional political and security developments. During the meetings, Shamkhani underlined the importance of fighting anti-Iran forces in the region.
The new “hardline” government in Iran intends to boost Ali Khamenei’s vision of developing a “resistance economy.” In light of this, Abdollahian’s recent visits also highlight Iran’s top priorities in Iraq and Syria. Firstly, amid the stalled nuclear talks and mounting US sanctions, Tehran’s economic interactions are limited to only a few countries. Several reports suggest that Iran’s crude oil production dropped to a 40-year low last year and more than half of Iran’s oil exports went to China. Against this backdrop, Iran is likely to hasten its efforts to strike more economic agreements with Syria and Iraq and deepen its economic ties with both countries to diversify its sources of revenue. Moreover, as Kadhimi is looking to strengthen the role of the Iraqi state and shift towards the Arab sphere, Tehran is likely to be concerned about its influence and commercial interests in the country. Secondly, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has reiterated Iran’s desire to strengthen its “axis of resistance” and to this end Tehran’s allies and proxies are critical in Syria and Iraq. Thirdly, Iran has spent a lot of money in Iraq and Syria to expand its sectarian project in the region with several reports indicating that Tehran handed out money to impoverished people in both countries and converted them to its version of Shiism. Iran has continued with its plan to alter the demographics in Syria and Iraq, a clear indication of Tehran’s agenda to establish firm Shiite incubators in these two countries.
Although Abdollahian extended Iranian support for the upcoming Iraqi election and urged foreign powers not to interfere, Tehran’s proxies have carried out attacks in several parts of Iraq to influence the internal political and security equation. Iranian proxies have been boosted by the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, giving them hope of expelling US forces from other regional spots and taking control over strategic locations. Amid little progress in the nuclear talks and lingering tensions, Abdollahian’s visits intend to enhance Tehran’s regional influence, strengthen the “axis of resistance” and provide it with more leverage cards in its interactions with the West, particularly with the United States.