Tehran changes horse midstream in Syria

Tehran’s surprise move on June 10 to give National Security Council Admiral Ali Shamkhani an additional pivotal role has opened up some possibilities to consolidate the Syrian ceasefire and galvanize the peace process. US Secretary of State John Kerry is seeing winds of change in Iranian thinking on Syria. Tehran’s second move a week later, the removal of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, came as a shock as he was close to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and was identified with ‘hardline’ policies on Syria and Saudi Arabia

Two seemingly innocuous appointments at the top echelons of Iran’s foreign and security policy establishment raise the prospect that Tehran is resetting the compass in regional politics.

Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhan

Admiral Ali Shamkhani

On June 10, Tehran announced that the secretary of the National Security Council Admiral Ali Shamkhani has been concurrently appointed against a newly-created post of senior coordinator with Syria and Russia for political, military and security affairs.

A week later, it came to be known that the pointperson in the Iranian foreign ministry dealing with Arab countries Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has been summarily replaced.

Three things must be noted here. Shamkhani’s appointment was announced a day after the meeting in Tehran of the defense ministers of Iran, Russia and Syria on June 9.

In fact, the only call the visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made in Tehran was with Shamkhani. Did the Kremlin have some premonition?

The point is, Shoigu traveled to Tehran a couple of days after the hurried visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin. (This has been Netanyahu’s fourth Putin parley in a year.)

The Israeli intelligence closely monitors the Byzantine world of Shi’ite politics and it has sources in Lebanon, which is a hunting ground for Iran’s politicians, diplomats and spies.

Two, US Secretary of State John Kerry, after meeting his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Zarif on the sidelines of the Oslo Forum meeting in Norway on June 15, intriguingly hinted at winds of change in Iranian thinking on Syria. Kerry noted:

I had a sense in talking to him (Zarif)… that there may be some possibilities. But I don’t believe in advertising possibilities before they’re real or certainly before people have had a chance to explore them.

American officials traveling with Kerry have been quoted as saying that Zarif signaled that he had more authority on the Syria file than before, and that Iran may be prepared to show more flexibility to advance a political solution.

Indeed, Zarif too had announced in Tehran as he was leaving for Oslo that he hoped to discuss Syria with Kerry. Presumably, Shamkhani’s appointment opened up “some possibilities”. At a minimum, US-Iranian engagement regarding Syria is no longer to be kept below the radar.

Three, Abdollahian’s removal came as a bombshell, because he was regarded as close to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and was identified with ‘hardline’ policies on Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Conceivably, Zarif desired greater harmony in his parish and convinced  President Hassan Rouhani of the need for clean break at the foreign ministry level on regional policies – and, possibly, Supreme Leader okayed it.

Arguably, Abdollahian’s removal became unavoidable once Shamkhani was given the pivotal role as coordinator of the war in Syria.

Shamkhani served as defense minister under the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami and late King Fahd had conferred on him the Order of Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s highest award, in appreciation of his contribution in normalizing Iran-Saudi relations in 2004.

Shamkhani reports directly to the Supreme Leader.  And, given his career track in the IRGC (where he served as the commander of its naval forces for eight years during the Iran-Iraq War) as well as his reputation for pragmatism and less ideological rigidity in decision-making, the locus of Iran’s Syria policies seems poised to shift more toward diplomacy and politics.

Tehran’s accent so far has been on ‘resistance’, and the unquestioned charioteer of Iran’s wars in Syria and Iraq (and Lebanon) has been the commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Will it remain so? That is the big question.

The IRGC has built up a cult of personality around Soleimani, which fuels speculations that he is being groomed as a future president.

Imam Khomeini had originally conceived the IRGC as the Praetorian Guards of the Islamic regime (which was riven with factionalism), but it increasingly began aspiring to play a political role in the most recent decades.

The IRGC is not a pushover since the war in Syria is also inextricably linked with Iran’s policies toward Saudi Arabia, ‘resistance’ against Israel, and hostility toward Iran’s normalization with the US.

Meanwhile, there are ominous stirrings. Iran’s intelligence has just uncovered a plot by “Takfiri Wahhabi groups” allegedly planning to carry out terrorist attacks during the holy month of Ramadan. It comes a timely reminder that Iran needs to be extremely wary about Saudi intentions.

Again, on Monday it was disclosed that Soleimani has shifted from Iraq (where he was in recent weeks) to Syria “in preparation for a large-scale operation by the Syrian army and popular forces in Southern Aleppo.”

Of course, if Soleimani launches an offensive in Aleppo, it will undermine whatever understanding Zarif gave to Kerry in Oslo last week regarding the ceasefire in Syria.

Will Soleimani (read the IRGC) push the envelope? A senior advisor to Soleimani, Brig. Gen. Iraj Masdeji has gone on record asserting that the IRGC will continue to fight in Iraq and Syria until the last Islamic State and “takfiri” fighter is killed, and that Iranian forces are engaged in fighting “to defend the borders of our country.”

Most importantly, in a rare statement, Soleimani warned on Monday from Syria that the Al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain (which is backed by Saudi Arabia) will be overthrown through “armed resistance” unless it retracted from the recent move to strip the noted Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Issa Qassim of his citizenship.

It is an extremely provocative statement, negating the image of Iran as a responsible regional power that Rouhani and Zarif have been assiduously projecting.

Now, Soleimani’s threat has been promptly endorsed by the chairman of the foreign and security policy commission of the Majlis, Alae’ddin Broujerdi, an influential figure in the establishment.

Also, the speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani and the advisor to the Supreme Leader on foreign affairs Ali Akbar Velayati have come out with strong denunciation of the Bahrain regime.

To be sure, the shark-infested waters of Iran’s politics have become animated. Tiger sharks are on the prowl.

Conceivably, President Rouhani does not want to meet the fate of Khatami whose presidency was relentlessly emasculated by the ‘deep state.’ He may be counting on support from sections within the religious establishment that militate against the IRGC’s ascendancy, but that may not suffice.

In a forceful opinion piece in the New York Times on Monday, the influential Iranian scholar-diplomat at Princeton, Seyed Hossein Mousavian has written that Obama administration must act in helping Rouhani vindicate his politics of moderation.

Interestingly, against such a tumultuous backdrop, Boeing announced on Tuesday its agreement with Iran to sell 100 aircraft in $25 billion deal.

If the European banks ever needed word that Washington will not oppose Iran’s integration with the international financial system, it would lie in the Obama administration’s green signal to Boeing to go ahead.

It is Zarif’s turn to live up to the impression he gave to Kerry in Oslo regarding “some possibilities” to consolidate the Syrian ceasefire and galvanize the peace process.

Iran’s Supreme Leader will be the final arbiter, of course. But then, Zarif is far too seasoned a diplomat to have spoken out of turn.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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