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Raisi visit signals Iran focus in Syria shifting from military to economic

May 12, 2023 at 2:12 pm

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (L) is welcomed by head of Syrian regime Bashar Al Assad (R) with an official ceremony at Presidential Palace in Damascus, Syria on May 03, 2023. [Iran Presidency – Anadolu Agency]

In a first visit by an Iranian President to the war-ravaged Arab country in 13 years, Ebrahim Raisi led a high-ranking delegation to Syria last week and returned with a bagful of cooperation pacts.

Raisi was accompanied by ministers of foreign affairs, petroleum, defence, roads and urban development, and telecommunications on the two-day trip, with the focus primarily on economics.

The two sides signed at least 15 cooperation agreements, including a long-term comprehensive strategic pact to bolster bilateral economic and security cooperation, according to Iranian officials.

Upon his return to Tehran, Raisi quite enthusiastically hailed the trip as a “turning point” in the expansion of economic, commercial, political and security cooperation between the two countries.

He said economic and trade issues are now “on the agenda” of Syria and regional countries, amid geopolitical changes, referring to the recent wave of normalisations between Syria and its neighbours.

Pertinently, Iran has been a key supporter of Bashar Al-Assad since the 2011 uprising against his regime transformed into a full-blown war that lasted several years and left a trail of death and destruction.

READ: Qatar says position on relations with Syrian regime ‘unchanged’

Now, as Arab countries move to bury the hatchet with Damascus after years of hostility, Iran sees it as a “personal victory”, since Tehran played a key role in turning the tide in Assad’s favour.

“Iran backed Assad when all others turned their back on him, and that’s precisely why Tehran sees the recent wave of normalisation as a personal victory,” Mohsen Lashgari, a Tehran-based strategic affairs analyst, told Anadolu, referring to “bonhomie” between Raisi and Assad during the recent visit.

He was echoing Raisi’s deputy Chief of Staff for Political Affairs, Mohammad Jamshidi, who said the Iranian President’s visit to Syria was a sign of Iran’s “strategic victory in the region”.

Lashgari said the new phase of cooperation between Tehran and Damascus will “mainly be in the economic sphere” though Iran will “continue to provide security and military assistance”.

Statements and agreements

After throwing its weight behind Assad during years of war, Iran is now poised to invest in the Arab country’s economic future, including ongoing reconstruction works, as stated by Raisi and other Iranian officials during the two-day visit.

In bilateral talks, Raisi and Assad discussed “ways to develop and strengthen bilateral relations” and “emphasised existing cooperation in the field of reconstruction,” according to the joint statement.

The duo also expressed willingness to “take any action required to develop economic relations” as the Arab country seeks to revive its economy, which has been battered by war and sanctions.

“Raisi’s visit to Syria, which came amid Arab normalisation with Damascus, was essentially meant to reaffirm Iran’s support for Assad in the post-war phase, as focus shifts gradually towards reconstruction and rebuilding,” Amirali Dariush, a Tehran-based economic expert, told Anadolu.

“Many regional countries have stepped forward to restore ties with Syria and pledged investments in the country’s reconstruction, so naturally Iran doesn’t want to be left behind,” he said.

In the last Iranian calendar year that ends on 20 March, Iranian exports to Syria grew 11.4 per cent, according to Iran’s semi-official media, which shows improved trade ties between them.

During the two-day trip, Raisi also met with a group of Syrian businesspeople to discuss the promotion of bilateral trade, saying the two sides needed to “take a step forward,” according to Syrian media.

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Iran’s Finance and Economic Affairs Minister, Ehsan Khandouzi, also met with his Syrian counterpart, Kinan Yaghi, and both agreed to boost cooperation in banking, insurance and customs, according to these media reports.

The agreements signed between the two sides cover trade, oil and energy, engineering, housing, rail and aerial transportation, free zones, communications and technology, earthquake reliefs and pilgrimage to holy sites, according to the joint statement.

After the trip, Iran’s Energy Minister, Ali-Akbar Mehrabian, said in his meeting with the Syrian regime’s Minister of Water Resources, Tammam Raad, in Iraq that Iran is ready to provide funding and expertise to restore Syria’s devastated water and electricity infrastructure.

While the economic dimension was predominant, the two sides also discussed security issues. Iran’s Defence Minister, Brigadier-General Amir Hatami, in a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mahmoud Abbas, in Damascus voiced Tehran’s readiness to equip the Syrian military with weapons and establish defence infrastructures.

Changing geopolitical dynamics

Raisi’s visit to Syria, the first by an Iranian President since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Damascus in October 2010, came amid a diplomatic push in the Arab world.

Days prior to the visit, both Iran and Syria restored ties with Saudi Arabia, a major Arab power, with Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, dashing off to meet Assad in Damascus.

On Sunday, the Arab League also agreed to re-admit Syria after over a decade of suspension.

“Shifting geopolitical dynamics indicate that Iran now has competition in Syria, with reports that Saudi Arabia and other regional countries are mulling big investments in the war-ravaged country’s economic future,” said Ashkan Haghigi, a researcher on the Middle East.

After his return to Tehran, Raisi spoke of cooperation agreements between Tehran and Damascus in areas such as energy production and distribution, establishing joint banks and insurance firms, lowering tariffs, and reviving Syria’s agricultural sector, among other things, adding that the implementation of agreements “started in Syria itself” during the two-day visit.

READ: US lawmakers to introduce bill to combat normalisation with Syria Assad

Meanwhile, the US took serious umbrage to Raisi’s visit to Syria, with a State Department spokesman warning that deepening ties between the two sides “should be of great concern to the world”.

In response, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, used a Persian proverb to take a swipe at his American counterpart: “Be angry and die of anger.”

However, it is not only the US that is opposed to normalisation with Assad. Qatar, a close regional ally of Iran, refused to send a representative to the Arab League summit in Cairo on Sunday.

“I feel Qatar is adopting a “wait and see” policy and will be the last Arab country to normalise relations with Syria,” Dariush said, adding that, however, “wagering on US policy is difficult.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.