Curbing Iranian regional influence is one of the main pillars of the US policy of maximum pressure on Iran, which was announced by US President Donald Trump in May 2018. Its intended aim is to change the behavior of the Iranian government. To enforce this policy further, several experts within the US administration expected the imposition of a tight maritime siege on Iran in order to block arms shipments to Tehran’s proxy groups and an increase in military checkpoints on the Iraqi-Syrian border at al-Tanf and other areas to curb the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah and Iran’s allied militias in Syria. This is in addition to intensifying the US presence in Iraq and Syria in order to curb Iranian expansion and to target Iranian militias in Syria. All these measures are aimed to curb Iranian influence in the region. The US administration has prioritized altering the terms of the nuclear deal by imposing sanctions on Iran in order to force it to accept changes to the deal. It also announced pulling out troops from Syria. The United States did not take any of the steps aimed to curb Iranian influence except for imposing sanctions on some entities and individuals loyal to Iran in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Hence, we have found new realities which Iran has taken advantage of to expand its influence, by taking actual steps in 2019 to attain a foothold in the Mediterranean by virtue of long-term investment agreements signed with the Syrian government, which have given Iran the opportunity to establish an entrenched presence along the Syrian coast. This raises a host of questions: What are the Iranian gains from consolidating its position in the Mediterranean? To what extent is the US strategy of maximum pressure effective when it comes to curbing the regional clout of Tehran, especially in Syria?
Increasing Iranian Influence on the Syrian Coast
By 2019, despite the US policy of maximum pressure, the cross-border Iranian project to increase Iranian clout entered a new phase in Syria as the IRGC was awarded long-term contracts and privileges there. Iran has managed in reality to implement the Iranian Corridor on a geographic area connecting Tehran with the Mediterranean via Iraq and Syria, which gives it a foothold on the coast of an important international sea (the Mediterranean). This was met with Russian anger and Israeli concern. Some of the contracts signed are as follows:
The first contract: the engineering arm of the IRGC, Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, which is the biggest contracting firm in the Middle East, and has been subject to US sanctions since June 2019, was awarded a concession from the Syrian government on September 2, 2019, to establish, run and operate a new multi-purpose commercial port with a waterfront of 2.5 kilometers in Al-Hamidiya area, south of Tartus governorate on the Mediterranean, for a period of 30 to 40 years.
The second contract: Transferring the management of Syria’s most important port and the Syrian economy’s vital artery (Latakia port) on the Mediterranean to the Iranians, according to The Times newspaper after the expiration of the management contract signed in partnership between Syria and France on November 1, 2019. The move represents Iran’s determination to gain a share of Syria’s wealth and reap the benefits in return for the material costs and human fatalities Iran has suffered over the past eight years at a time when Bashar al-Assad seeks to settle the debts he owes to Iran. According to Iran, the Latakia port, close to the Russian bases in Latakia and Tartus, is strategically significant to its presence in Syria. It appears that the Iranian and Syrian sides agreed that Iran would manage the port during Assad’s visit to Tehran in February 2019.
The third contract: this was signed between Syria, Iran, and Iraq to carry out a project connecting Bandar Imam Khomeini port, located in the southernmost part of Khuzestan province at the head of the Arabian Gulf, with Basra port in Iraq and Latakia port in Syria. This could happen via a network of railways passing through these countries (see map No. 1). The project is financed and carried out by the Bonyad e-Mostazafan Foundation of the IRGC. The first 22-kilometer long phase of the project connects the Shalamcheh city of Iran with Iraq’s Basra. It then connects Basra port with the Syrian airport (156 kilometers) and connects the Syria-Iraq border to Latakia port (160 kilometers). On the ground, Iran has started the project by completing the part of the Kermanshah-Bistoon-Hamil rail project inside Iran which is 1,041 kilometers in length that precedes the phase to connect Kermanshah with Bandar Imam Khomeini.
Map no.1: The Project to Connect Bandar Imam Khomeini Port With Syria’s Latakia Port
The IRGC plays a central role in implementing these contracts as it controls the Iranian firms which carry them out. It is the military body assigned to carry out Iran’s political expansionist missions in targeted Arab and non-Arab countries due to its ideological doctrine and its belief in Iran’s revolutionary objectives which aim to transform Iran into a global republic led by its supreme leader. In addition, the IRGC possesses the necessary capabilities to implement these contracts, which makes it more likely than ever before for Iran to secure an overland corridor, which entrenches its presence in the region, boosts its power and enhances its position. This capability includes the deployment of militias across Syria and Iraq and wielding a great deal of influence in the border areas between the two countries. The IRGC enjoys a strong financial position inside Iran arising from its separate budget in addition to wresting control over independent resources that are not subject to any parliamentary or government oversight, which enables it to act freely. Furthermore, the geographic proximity and the nature of relations with the government in Syria and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq, facilitates the easy and smooth implementation of Iranian projects as Iran has provided help and support to these governments.
Iranian Gains to Maximize Its Influence in the Mediterranean
Enhancing Iran’s Stature and Clout on the Commercial Transboundary Silk Road
Iran intends to emerge as key hub and player in China’s transnational project which aims to revive the Silk Road. Therefore, decision-makers in Tehran are well aware that creating an Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian commercial bloc –under Iranian control – given the fact that Iraq and Syria are located within the Silk Road’s geographic area – through connecting the three countries via rail projects, overland corridors, and seaports which shall be implemented and run by Iran – will turn Iran into a central hub and a vital element at the heart of the Silk Road project. This could alter its clout and position within the project, which will make Iran’s security a major strategic priority for leaders in China,
the world’s second-biggest economy after the United States and the biggest importer of Iranian oil despite the economic sanctions on Iran.
Leverage to Alleviate Pressures and Circumvent Sanctions
Iran possesses an additional strong leverage card on the international movement of trade, oil and cargo by directly wresting control over the Strait of Hormuz and indirectly wielding influence over the Strait of Bab Al-Mandab via the Houthi militias as the Mediterranean represents a meeting point and a link between three continents. The projects which connect Iran with the Mediterranean also act as a tool to circumvent US sanctions. They also render the US policy of maximum pressure to no avail in this regard as they enable Iran to transport goods and oil to the outside world and maximize investment opportunities in Latakia, which is considered part of Iran’s strategy for a long-term stay in Syria. They also boost religious tourism between Iran, Iraq, and Syria which are filled with Shiite landmarks.
The Mediterranean shore could give Iran an alternative maritime outlet for its ports situated in the Arabian Gulf. It also provides Iran with an opportunity to reach out to countries overlooking the Mediterranean in Western Europe and North Africa, as well as providing it with more levers against US interests in Africa and Europe and bringing it closer to Israel – a country which is hostile to Iran’s regional project. This represents a new security lever against Israel which Iran could resort to using in its battle with the West, Europe, and the United States, in particular, with regard to the nuclear deal, and lifting international sanctions imposed on it, as well as to subdue calls for Iran to get out of Syria and to negotiate with the international community. This offers a rational explanation to the question: Why has Syria been of major strategic importance to past empires and colonial powers wanting to dominate the region?
In light of Iran’s expansionist strategy, it seems that the Iranian aim behind taking control of Syrian coastal ports is beyond merely establishing, operating and running these ports. The Iranians have always made remarks revealing Tehran’s interest in the Syrian coast and their desire to set up a military base on its shores. Therefore, it is expected that these ports will be transformed into headquarters and positions for military purposes. Iran is also expected to use overland corridors and speed trains to transport weapons, military hardware and ammunition to its loyalist armed militias in Syria (the Free Shiite Army) and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This will be cheaper than transporting them by aerial means. This will tip the balance of power against Israel and give Iran a military bonus due to its proximity to Israel to carry out wide-ranging, and multi-front military action in case there is an armed confrontation with Tel Aviv and Washington. It will facilitate rapid military deployment by Iran to counter dangers in the Mediterranean away from key Iranian strategic areas.
Dangers and Consequences of the IRGC’s Positioning on the Syrian Coast
The first danger resulting from the IRGC’s foothold in the Mediterranean lies in the expanded scope of territory exposed to Iranian danger and harm. The second danger is the increase in Iranian levers against the interests of its foes, which are the countries that have strategic ties with Western Europe and the United States in addition to having a new lever against the movement of international trade and oil. The third danger is more Iranian circumvention of US sanctions, which contributes to making US sanctions and its policy of maximum pressure useless or curbs its effectiveness at least. This would, in the end, tip the scale in favor of Iran and maximize its regional might and clout, not curb it, boosting Iran’s ability to pose a threat to global peace and security.
In light of these dangers, we can touch on the most acute consequences of Iran’s positioning on the Mediterranean:
Aggravating the Iranian-Israeli Conflict
Iranian positions in Syria are being hit by intensive Israeli air raids as Iran exceeds the redlines set by Israel in Syria as it sends arms to militias in Syria and Lebanon, tipping the balance of power against Israel. This is in addition to bringing danger closer to Israel by extending the scope of its influence through building headquarters for some of its militias in southern Syria in Deraa and Quneitra, north of Israel, as well as its efforts to encircle Israel by repeating the model of the Lebanese Hezbollah in Southern Syria. Thus, it is expected that Israel would intensify raids against Iranian positions in general and its Latakia positions in particular after decision-makers in Tel Aviv announced that Iran will exploit railway lines and corridors to transport weapons to Hezbollah and its militias in Syria. This would help Israel legitimize possible future strikes against Iranian positions in Latakia as it is well aware of Iranian intentions to get a foothold on the shores of the Mediterranean and the headache that the Iranian presence in the Mediterranean will represent to Israel.
Rise in Russian-Iranian Tensions
The control over seaports is one of the main points of contention between Iran and Russia as they both seek to consolidate their presence in Syria. The Russians believe that Iran acquiring a foothold on the coastal strip would curb Russian influence, maximize Iranian clout and cause harm to Russian interests. This throws Moscow into a dilemma when Israeli jets target Iranian ships that will dock or Iranian weapons stored at the ports. Israeli strikes will be in close proximity to Russian air defense systems, which will put Russia in a difficult position with Syria, Iran, and Israel. This explains the enhancement of Russia’s military presence on the Syrian coast and Russia turning a blind eye to consecutive Israeli military strikes against Iranian positions on Syrian territories to curb Iranian influence. It is expected that the policy of turning a blind eye by Russia towards Israeli strikes would continue as long as they serve Russian interests.
It seems that the road of the Iranians to the Syrian coast in general and Latakia port in particular, is not a bed of roses. This is because of sanctions, Israeli strikes, Russian-Israeli coordination against Iranian clout in Syria and the refusal of some Syrian security apparatuses to totally hand the port over to the Iranians as they fear being deprived of the proceeds of smuggling via the port. But Iranian ambitions toward the Syrian coast have been accompanied by steps and moves on the ground, which expands the scope of the Iranian danger as the Iranians shall get an additional lever on the movement of international trade in the Mediterranean. This puts the US strategy of maximum pressure to a decisive test when it comes to curbing Iranian influence.
This raises the question: How far is the United States serious and how effective is the US strategy of maximum pressure in curbing Iranian regional clout and addressing the Iranian danger in the Mediterranean? This should be considered in light of the fact that Iran is expanding its clout and boosting its position not only by retaining the levers it is already holding in response to the US strategy of maximum pressure but is also acquiring additional levers relating to the movement of international trade and oil by establishing positions on the Syrian coast.