The US has not been much involved in Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Mainly, it has left the road clear for Russia and its allies, Iran and Turkey, to invest politically and militarily, while the US concentrated on combating Daesh. Now, with the war in Syria almost at an end and a different administration in Washington, the US has seen the importance of its presence, and wants to dismantle the Russian, Iranian and Turkish peace process in Astana, Kazakhstan, which is taking place in parallel with UN-sponsored talks in Geneva.
The US wants to bring peace initiatives back under UN supervision, so that Washington can monitor the process and play a role in events when the war is over and Daesh has been comprehensively defeated.
This would mean that Iran and Russia could no longer shape the regional political climate based on their own interests. Iran’s leaders have so far expressed no opinion on the new US strategy for the Middle East, although Washington has openly declared that its major aim is to counter Iran’s malign influence in the region. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was clear and unequivocal: US troops will not leave Syria, and there is an open-ended commitment to pave the way for the departure of Bashar Assad and to block Iran’s ambitions.
The reason for the silence from Tehran is that US President Donald Trump will make a final decision in May on US participation in the 2015 agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions, and any Iranian challenge to his Middle East strategy could directly affect that decision. Preserving the nuclear deal is crucial for the regime in Tehran. It is their savior, and its economic benefits could calm angry Iranians, who took to the streets this month in widespread protests demanding the toppling of the regime. Iran has shown itself capable of using militias as proxies to serve its interests in the region, from Hezbollah’s role in Syria to the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq — formed to confront terrorists, and then cleverly absorbed into the national army to preserve their legality. If Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is looking to form another militia in Syria to support its long-term regional strategy, it may have to recalculate — as the powers confronting Iran’s leaders include not only their own people, who resent the expense, but now also the US. Tehran’s actions over the next three months, before Trump announces his decision, will be interesting to observe. Iranians are upset and angry about the regime’s spending on sectarian wars in Syria and elsewhere in the region while they are mired in poverty.
How much longer will they tolerate this regime’s oppression? If living conditions in Iran do not improve in the short term, there is every possibility of further uprisings. Meanwhile, the US has made its strategy clear, and Iran’s options are to change its behavior or continue with its regional meddling and face the consequences. Iran’s political and economic system is fragile. Public frustration with the economic situation is
growing, as is dissatisfaction with government corruption. Iran at the moment is a pressure cooker. Trump’s decision on the nuclear deal could blow the lid off.
By Camelia Entekhabifard
Camelia Entekhabifard is an Iranian-American journalist, political commentator and author of “Camelia: Save Yourself By Telling the Truth” (Seven Stories Press, 2008). Twitter: @CameliaFard/