Spotlight on Iran (May 3, 2020 – May 17, 2020)

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The IRGC fighter killed in Syria, Abolfazl Sarlak (on the left), alongside Heydar Jalilvand who was killed in Syria in 2017 (Defa Press)

The IRGC fighter killed in Syria, Abolfazl Sarlak (on the left), alongside Heydar Jalilvand who was killed in Syria in 2017 (Defa Press)

Fighters in the Fatemiyoun Brigade marking the anniversary of the establishment of the Brigade in the city of Aleppo (Telegram channel of the group, May 12, 2020)

Fighters in the Fatemiyoun Brigade marking the anniversary of the establishment of the Brigade in the city of Aleppo (Telegram channel of the group, May 12, 2020)

The meeting between the prime minister of Iraq and the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad (Tasnim, May 9, 2020)

The meeting between the prime minister of Iraq and the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad (Tasnim, May 9, 2020)

The meeting between the Iraqi and Iranian officials concerning the reopening of the Shalamcheh border crossing (IRNA, April 9, 2020).

The meeting between the Iraqi and Iranian officials concerning the reopening of the Shalamcheh border crossing (IRNA, April 9, 2020).

The Spokesman of the IRGC, Ramazan Sharif (Tasnim, May 3, 2020)

The Spokesman of the IRGC, Ramazan Sharif (Tasnim, May 3, 2020)

Overview
  • A fighter with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was killed in Syria. According to some reports, he died in an explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED) laid by ISIS.
  • Conflicting reports emerged in Syrian pro-opposition websites with regards to the staging of the Shia militias operating under Iranian patronage in Syria: according to some reports, fighters in the Shia militias withdrew or re-positioned in the country’s east, while other reports indicate reinforcements arrived to bolster the militias in recent weeks. As a whole, this information indicates that at the most, some fighters of the Shia militias may have re-positioned themselves and carried out a tactical withdrawal, while Israeli officials claimed that Iranian forces are withdrawing from Syria. Meanwhile, there has been a recent uptick in frequency of cargo flights between Iran and Syria.
  • Iran harshly condemned Germany’s decision to designate Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist group, and presented it as German surrender to Israel.
  • Iran welcomed the appointment of Mustafa al-Kazimi as the incoming Iraqi Prime Minister. The Iranian president spoke on the phone with the incoming prime minister, and the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, as well as the American ambassador to Baghdad, met the newly elected prime minister. It is apparent that Tehran is currently adopting a wait-and-see approach, to determine what policies of the incoming prime minister adopts, particularly when it comes to bilateral relationships between Iraq and Iran and Iraq and the United States, as well as his approach toward the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq.
  • In the economic arena: the head of the Joint Iranian-Syrian Chamber of Commerce estimated that the trade volume between the two countries may reach one billion dollars in 2021. On the Iran-Iraq border, officials from both countries met to discuss the possibility of reopening the crossings in southern Iran, which were closed following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • For the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, due to the outbreak of the Corona virus, Iran announced the cancellation of the International Qods Day rallies, which are held annually on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan. The events of the day will be marked in different ways, including through propaganda activities online and rallies of cars and motorcycles.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
  • On May 10, an IRGC fighter Abolfazl Sarlak, was killed in the Ithriya-Khanasser area in southeastern Aleppo governorate (Defa Press, May 11). Some reports indicate he was killed in an IED explosion that also killed a Syrian Hezbollah militiamen.The Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the IRGC, quoted at length (May 9) a commentary published on May 7 on the website of al-Mayadin, which is close to Lebanese Hezbollah, under the headline “when will the appropriate response come to the repeated Israeli strikes in Syria?” The article, penned by Charles Abu Nader, a former senior commander in the Lebanese Army who is close to Hezbollah, addressed the delay in the retaliation of the “Resistance Front” to the strikes attributed to Israel, arguing that the only possible option for the “Resistance” is to proceed cautiously increasing its capabilities for a possible future conflict with Israel. At the same time, he urged to avoid inappropriate responses to the Israeli strikes, which may result in casualties [among the fighters of the “Resistance Front.”] Abu Nader stressed that the decision to retaliate due to the persistence of Israeli strikes through military confrontation is natural, but the timing of the response and its location need to be carefully considered.
  • Meanwhile, Iranian freighter jets have stepped up the frequency of flights to Syria. At least five flights of the Fars Qasham Air were identified in the past two weeks by analysts tracking the movement of air crafts in the region.
  • Syrian pro-opposition website published conflicting reports in recent days about the positioning of the Shia militias operating under IRGC patronage in eastern Syria. The news outlet Deir Ezzor 24 published (May 11) that fighters from the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade and the 313 Brigade, which is mostly made up of local Syrian in addition to foreign Shia fighters, were moved on May 9 from their headquarters in southern Deir Ezzor and al-Mayadin. The Fatemiyoun Brigade fighters were allegedly relocated to a new headquarters in Palmyra and the fighters of the 313 Brigade to their main headquarters in Sayyeda Zainab south of Damascus. According to this report, the fighters were moved, possibly for their leave from the service, in civilian buses without weaponry or armed escort, to avoid arousing attention. Meanwhile, the website Jesr (May 10) reported about the transfer of control over a number of positions and checkpoints, which were once controlled by pro-Iranian militias in Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria, to militias operating under Russian patronage.
  • The website Euphrates Post, on the other hand, reported (May 11) about reinforcements of the Shia militias operating under the IRGC’s control in Syria. According to this report, 100 additional fighters of the Fatemiyoun Brigade were recently dispatched to Syria from Iran, entering Syria through the Albu Kamal crossing on the Syria-Iraq border. The fighters initially reached the western side of Deir Ezzor city, and from there proceeded to Damascus. The website also reported that the Zeynabiyoun Brigade, made up of Shia fighters from Pakistan, was also recently reinforced by fighters who were reassigned from Deir Ezzor to the Homs countryside.
  • In addition, a Syrian pro-opposition website reported about the deployment of the Iraqi militia, Liwaa’ al-Muntazir, in the Albu Kamal region. According to this report, the new militia, which was established following the orders of the Commander of the Qods Force, Esmail Qa’ani, is comprised of several hundred Iraqis and Syrians, and was deployed in Syria in March, after its members underwent training in urban terrain and guerrilla warfare by Iranian officers in the area of al-Qaem, on the Iraqi side of the border crossing (Step News, May 3).
  • The Chairman of the Joint Iranian-Syrian Chamber of Commerse, Kivan Kashefi, assessed that the volume of trade between the two countries may reach a billion dollars in 2021. He stated that the recent establishment of the Joint Chamber of Commerce is intended to increase the volume of trade between the countries, and that Syria makes up one of the central markets for the export of Iranian goods in the construction, housing and agricultural sectors. Kashefi provided updates about the efforts to organize a trade show in Syria, which will present Iran’s capabilities and goods, in an effort to encourage additional Iranian firms to enter the Syrian market. He also reported that efforts are underway to soon open an Iranian trade center in Syria. He remarked that the cooperation of the central banks in both countries is needed for opening a credit line, which would facilitate deals between the two countries. According to him, despite the improvement that occurred in the movement of goods from Iran to Syria through the ground crossing of Albu Kamal between Iraq and Syria, most Iranian goods to Syria still arrive through the sea (the website of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, May 11).
  • Iran condemned the April 30th decision made by the German government to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and ban it from operating on German soil. The Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Mousavi, declared that some European countries are adopting positions without considering the realities of the region, but in line with “the targets of the propaganda machine of the Zionist entity and confused American regime.” He argued that the decision of the German government was made without taking into account the government of Lebanon and the people of Lebanon, since Hezbollah constitutes an official and legitimate part of the government and the parliament in Lebanon, and it is an influential political party when it comes to ensuring stability in the country, and enjoys widespread popular support in Lebanon and the region (Tasnim, May 1).
  • The Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, also condemned the German decision, writing on his Twitter account (May 1), that those who sold chemical weapons to the ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, are now presenting themselves as defenders of human rights and declared Hezbollah as a terrorist organization due to the fear of “their friend, the child-killer,” referring to Israel. He added that ISIS did not reach Europe because it was blocked by the “Walls of the Resistance” and that the “mask has been ripped from the faces of the main sponsors of terrorism.”

The exposure of cooperation between the Mossad and Germany against Lebanese Hezbollah (Tasnim, May 3, 2020)
The exposure of cooperation between the Mossad and Germany
against Lebanese Hezbollah (Tasnim, May 3, 2020)

Iranian Involvement in Iraq and Yemen
  • Iran welcomed the confirmation of Mustafa al-Kazimi as Iraq’s incoming prime minister by the Iraqi parliament. The Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, congratulated al-Kazimi on his Twitter account (May 7), as well as the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi people for completing the task of government formation. He stressed that Iran will always stand by the side of the Iraqi people and their choices. The Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, also welcomed on his Twitter account (May 7) the prime minister-elect, and wished the new government success in serving the Iraqi people.
  • On May 11, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, spoke on the phone with the Iraqi prime minister and congratulated him for the nomination. Rouhani stressed his country’s support for Iraq, adding that Iraq’s independence, political stability, national sovereignty and territorial integrity are important to Iran. He expressed hope for furthering the ties and commercial cooperation between the two countries, adding that the countries of the region must be careful of those seeking to threaten the interests of Iraq and the countries of the region. al-Kazimi remarked that Iraq will never forget Iran’s assistance in ensuring stability and security in Iraq, and particularly the role it played in the campaign against ISIS. He too called for bolstering ties between the two countries (IRNA, May 11).
  • On May 9, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kazimi, met with the Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi. In the meeting, al-Kazimi stated that Iraq wishes to establish good relations with Iran and all of its neighbors, to promote their interests, security and stability of the region. He remarked that his country will not serve as “a pathway or hideout for terrorism, a base for aggression against any country, or an arena to settle scores.” Masjedi congratulated the incoming prime minister for his confirmation by the Iraqi parliament, and expressed Iran’s desire in bolstering relations and cooperation between the two countries in all spheres. al-Kazimi also met with the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. He stressed in that meeting that he will not allow his country to become the staging ground for attacking neighboring countries and expressed hope for bolstering relations between Iraq and the United States (Tasnim; the Iraqi News Agency, May 9). In interviews to the Iranian news agencies IRNA and al-Alam, Masjedi stated that al-Kazimi’s approach vis-a-vis Iran is positive and that he promised to work to bolster ties between the two countries and implement all the bilateral agreements signed by Iran and Iraq (IRNA, May 13).
  • In light of a number of articles published in Arab and Western media about the close ties between the incoming Iraqi prime minister with the United States, the Iranian news website Tabnak published a commentary (May 12) titled: “Will al-Kazimi’s Iraq be anti-Iranian?” The commentary argued that analysts who claim that al-Kazimi intends to prioritize Iraq’s relationship with the United States over its ties to Iran do not understand the essence of the relationship between Iran and Iraq, and the depth of the Iranian influence in Iraq, which do not fundamentally change when a government is replaced in Baghdad.
  • Tahseen al-Khafaji, the Spokesman of the Joint Operations Command in Iraq stated that the security cooperation between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Russia in the campaign against “the remnants of ISIS” is ongoing. He stated that the Joint Operations Command cooperates with the three countries in gathering intelligence and striking ISIS targets in Iraq (ISNA, May 11).
  • On April 9, representatives of the Arvand Free Trade Zone Organization, an area that lies along the shores of the Persian Gulf, met with Iraqi officials from the city of Basra at the Shalamcheh border crossing connecting Iran and Iraq. The two sides discussed the possibility of re-opening the border crossing, which was shut down on March 7 by Iraq to the entry of Iranian goods, due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two sides deliberated on the public health measures required to be able to safety reopen the crossing and resume economic activity through it. The Shalamcheh border crossing is located about 15 kilometers from the city of Khoramshahr in southwestern Iran, and about 20 kilometers from the city of Basra in Iraq, and it is considered the most important crossing in southern Iran for the movement of goods and pilgrims between the two countries (IRNA, April 9).
  • The Spokesman of Iranian Customs, Ruhollah Latifi, reported that in the last Iranian year (which ended on March 19, 2020) the volume of Iranian trade with Iraq through Iraqi Kurdistan stood at USD 3.8 billion. He remarked that 42 percent of the Iranian exports to Iraq and 31 percent of the imports from Iraq passed through the border crossings connecting Iraq to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq (Rudaw, May 10).
  • On May , the Senior Adviser to the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali-Ashgar Khaji, held a video call with the Spokesman of the Ansar Allah Movement (the Houthi rebels) in Yemen, Mohammed Abdul-Salam, and discussed with him the situation in Yemen. Abdul-Salam thanked the adviser of the foreign minister for the “humanitarian assistance and political and spiritual support” that Iran has provided to the Yemeni people, and provided Khaji with an update on the latest developments in Yemen. Khaji stated during the call that the solution to the crisis in Yemen is a political agreement based on halting the fighting, removing the aerial, ground and naval blockade imposed on Yemen and resume dialogue between different groups in the country (ISNA, May 10).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
  • Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Iranian announced – for the first time since the Islamic Revolution – the cancellation of International Qods Day rallies held annually since 1979 on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan. The Spokesman of the IRGC, Ramazan Sharif, who also serves at the secretary of the Intifada and Jerusalem Headquarters at Iran’s Islamic Propagation Coordination Council, stated in a press conference that this year’s International Qods Day will be marked through different ways, including: Online activities and rallies of cars and motorcycles. In addition, Sharif informed reporters that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, will deliver a special speech on the occasion, set for May 22, and that the Head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, Ismail Hanniyeh, or some other senior official in the “Resistance Front” may participate in the Qods Day events in Tehran (Tasnim, May 3).
  • Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, the Chairman of the Committee to Support the Islamic Revolution of the Palestinian People and the former Iranian Ambassador to Syria, proclaimed that the current circumstances, and particularly the Deal of the Century of the U.S. president, necessitate marking International Qods Day this year too. However, due to COVID-19, the focus should shift from holding rallies and other options should be examined for properly marking the occasion, for example by relying on online platforms (ISNA, May 3).



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