By Majid Rafizadeh
May 19, 2020
US sanctions on Iran and the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy are forcing Tehran to tactically shift its policy toward its staunchest ally, Syria.
The Iranian regime has reined in some of its forces in the Arab state and reduced its financial assistance to the Syrian government. As James Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria and the fight against Daesh, pointed out last week: “We have seen the Iranians pulling in some of their outlying activities and such in Syria… in terms of the huge success of the Trump administration’s sanctions policies against Iran. It’s having a real effect in Syria.”
Since President Donald Trump in 2018 pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, and adopted the maximum pressure policy, Iran’s oil exports have been steadily falling. Before the US began taking a tougher stance toward the ruling clerics, Iran was exporting more than 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd). Its exports have since dropped to about 200,000 bpd — a decline of more than 85 percent.
As the flow of funds to the Iranian government is cut off, the Iranian leaders’ efforts to fund and sponsor the Syrian regime and various militia groups are impacted. Even a Syrian state-controlled newspaper has admitted that Iran has reduced its financial assistance to Damascus. Al-Watan made the surprising revelation when it reported that Iran halted its credit line to the Syrian government in 2018. It added that the Tehran regime was having difficulty shipping oil to Syria, creating a fuel shortage. Iran has also been forced to cut funds to its militias in Syria and it has not been able to pay some of the militants’ salaries. One fighter in Syria last year told the New York Times: “The golden days are gone and will never return. Iran doesn’t have enough money to give us.”
Other factors that have forced Iran to reduce its presence in Syria are the coronavirus disease pandemic and the global plunge in oil prices. These factors will most likely cause Iran’s economy to shrink further, forcing the regime to cut defense spending. Even before the pandemic, in October last year, the International Monetary Fund adjusted its forecast for Iran’s economy, stating that it was expected to shrink by 9.5 percent in 2019, rather than the 6 percent it had previously predicted.
Tehran has also been forced to shift its focus from Syria to domestic issues as it is facing a significant budget deficit and is running out of options to generate revenue amid the US maximum pressure policy, the pandemic, and the falling oil price. As Iran’s state-run daily Kayhan acknowledged in February: “The persistence of the recession will not only lead to further declines in income and livelihoods, but also a large portion of the government’s tax revenue projected in the 2020-2021 budget will not be reached, exacerbating the previous deficit.”
In addition, the US position toward Tehran has most likely emboldened and empowered Israel to further target Iran’s bases in Syria, putting significant pressure on the regime. And the US Caesar Act, which is due to come into effect on June 17, will further worsen Iran’s situation, as it will impose additional sanctions on any states and private companies that assist the Syrian regime.
But it is important to point out that the Iranian regime’s decision to rein in its forces in Syria and cut funds to its militias there does not represent a fundamental shift in Iran’s Syria policy. In other words, the regime’s shift is tactical, not strategic. The four-decade history of the theocratic establishment shows that, whenever its economy recovers, it will return to its modus operandi of boosting its support for and arming and financing militia groups and the Syrian regime.
For the US policy on Iran to be more effective and have long-lasting effects on Tehran’s Syria policy, the EU must also commit itself to meaningful joint action with its transatlantic partner to put a stop to Iran’s rogue behavior and destabilizing influence in Syria. And, while US policy toward the Iranian regime is heading in the right direction, Washington must also closely cooperate with the Gulf states. A united front — and joint sanctions — would send a clear message and engender an economic stranglehold that would force the Iranian government to concentrate on its domestic agenda, rather than its influence in Syria.
In conclusion, America’s maximum pressure policy is pushing Iran in the right direction, but other countries ought to adopt this informed policy in order to further restrict the Tehran regime.