Iran's strategic stake in W Asia

A disingenuous fuss has been made over the amount of financial and military aid Iran has been giving the embattled Syrian government. UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said Iran spends $6 billion a year to sustain the regime, excluding military assistance. Former US Institute of Peace official Steven Heydeman put the figure at $15-19 billion. Strategic analyst Emile Hokayem suggested Iran gave Syria $15-19 billion during 2013-14.

Speculators seem to have been inspired by a Syrian request for $1 billion in financial aid to prop up the country’s economy and sustain its administration in the central and western enclaves still under government control. Feeling the strain of heavy outlays in Syria, Tehran has asked Moscow, which has recently reduced aid to Syria, to increase funding and military support. Last month, Russia dispatched a cargo plane of humanitarian aid to the Syrian port of Latakia, held by the government, but has apparently not so far listened to pleas from Tehran and Damascus for financial and military aid.

Whatever the figures, injections of funds, fuel and arms from both Iran and Russia have enabled the government of President Bashar al-Assad to survive for more than four years an escalating domestic insurgency which has been transformed into a sectarian proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Peter Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, put the situation in perspective when he said Iran’s military budget, variously estimated at $6 billion to $15 billion, is a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s budget which, he stated, has topped $80 billion.    When discussing the Syrian conflict, budgets matter.

Last March, Saudi Arabia and Turkey signed a pact to increase aid to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist factions fighting in Syria and the US Congress authorised $500 million to support the Central Intelligence Agency programme to train allegedly “vetted rebels” deployed to fight Islamic State (IS) in Syria. 

The US government figures are far smaller than those provided by de Mistura and the experts. The White House argues Iran is spending a limited amount in Syria as well as small sums on Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Yemen’s Shia Houthi rebels now battling Saudi Arabia. US President Barack Obama has argued, “The great danger that the region has faced from Iran is not because (the Iranians) have so much money.

Their [military] budget is $15 billion compared to $ 150 billion for the Gulf states,” including Saudi Arabia. He did not mention, however, that Iran’s external purchases of weaponry averages $1-1.8 billion – due to stiff sanctions in imposed since 1979 – compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weaponry bought by the Saudis and their Gulf allies. 

N programme pact

The US has played down Iran’s financial investment in the Syrian war because the White House does not wish to alienate Tehran just days before Iran is set to reach an agreement on its nuclear programme with the US-led group of six. Furthermore, Washington seeks to allay concerns in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf that once a deal is reached and sanctions begin to be lifted, Iran will massively boost its arms imports. This is unlikely, argue US experts, because the Iranian economy is in dire straits, country’s oil infrastructure is in a state of collapse, and the populace expects early benefits from the easing of sanctions. 

Little is being said about Iran’s military investment in Iraq which is also battling Islamic State militants who have seized the country’s second city Mosul and Ramadi and Falluja, key cities in Anbar province, the largest, with borders on Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.  
While Iran has a long-term strategic stake in sustaining the Syrian regime, it is far more interested in ensuring that Iraq remains within its sphere of interest. Iraq is ruled by a fundamentalist Shia regime which enjoys close ties to Iran.

It has recruited, trained and armed the Shia militias which, grouped in the “Popular Mobilisation Forces,” have done most of the heavy fighting against IS in Iraq and can be expected to continue in this role as the Iraqi army – which has been given fresh training by the US – has proved to be undermanned, corrupt, and ineffective.  Consequently, the US Air Force has been compelled to provide support for pro-Iranian Shia militiamen in offensives against IS. The coming battle for Ramadi is likely to follow this pattern. This means that on the battlefield the US and Iran are not only on the same side but are allies, although neither side will admit it.

So far, the US air campaign in Iraq has cost $2.7 billion over the past nine months.  It is likely that this is a greater amount than Iran has spent on its allies during this period. Iran’s investment in Iraqi militias since the early 1980’s has been far more cost effective.

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