Indeed last week was a busy one in international politics. From Venezuela to new rounds of Brexit negotiations, while Washington and Beijing had their fight over their leading phone companies. Even the Middle East was laud over speculations on American withdrawal from Syria, the course of the Yemeni conflict and President Sīsī could welcome his French colleague Macron as a major improvement in his personal status. Yet, as so many times, the week had an unsung diplomatic hero, who achieved much, but brought little attention to itself.
Iranian diplomacy had a busy, but very fruitful week. And one reads the signs well, can read much out from these few days. On Monday 28 January Iranian Vice-President Jahangiri visited Damascus ahead of a sizable delegation of businessmen and government officials. A day later, after a tightly scheduled day of negotiations, Jahangiri held a press conference with Syrian Prime Minister ‘Imād Hamīs, announcing the sign of 11 accords between the two allies. One would probably assume, that these agreements focused on military and counter-terrorism themes. But that was very lightly covered as the meeting focused on economical, technological and cultural cooperation. And that was only a prelude to a major Syrian-Iranian business forum. Most of these agreements leave the analyst wonder, what was so important among these, that Jahangiri himself had to appear, and what was all the celebrations for. Two things might answer the questions. One point stipulates, that the Syrian state will do its best to support Iranian investments in the Arab country, to help rebuild the Syrian economy. That is surely a major gain for Tehran, especially in the light of renewed American sanctions. But in many – yet not official – reports there are vague mentions of joint investments in third party states. Which seems rather odd, as we are left to wonder, which states could that be. Is the Iranian economy really in the state to have an eye for major foreign investments? Not to mention the Syrian. And especially together?
The other interesting, yet lightly elaborated point stipulates the finalization of the Tehran-Damascus direct railway. Well, a Tehran-Damascus line clearly means a Tehran-Latakia railway, but let us leave the reasons and benefits for this aside for a second. Simply, how is that even possible? Surely the line would connect Iran to Basra in Iraq, and from there it would head to Syria. But to connect Damascus by train to Iraq, there are only three viable ways. The easiest is by the existing highway crossing into Iraq close to the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi triple border. But that would lead across at-Tanf, where the Americans have a major military base built illegally. And they are not really about to leave from here, regardless of President Trump’s statements. Not to mention the major militant pocket still embedded under this foreign umbrella, which would probably not welcome such building project. The second way is to Palmyra, from there to the Euphrates, and along the river crossing to Iraq. But that line is dangerously close to the pockets of Dā‘iš cells, still active in the desert. The third, least economic way would be the Hims-ar-Raqqa-Dayr az-Zūr line, reaching Aleppo through the existing tracks, or building a new direct one. From Dayr it could turn south by the Euphrates.
Yet, that would require the possession of both at-Raqqa and the complete Dayr az-Zūr, which are currently in the hands of the American backed Kurdish forces. None of these seems viable. Though the sides did not disclose to projected route, in any case such investment is a multi-billion project. This magnitude is surely not something any government would devote itself for, unless serious planning was behind it and had known for upmost certainly, that the project is feasible. Especially to run smoothly on the long run. That indicates, that decision makers both in Damascus and Tehran already know something that we are still yet to learn.
But in any case, let say it will happen! Why is that so important, beyond the seemingly shaky ground it is built on? First of all, it should be pointed out, that this is not a spontaneous idea the two government just decided upon. As early as November 2017 Syrian Transportation Minister, ‘Alī Hammūd sparked speculations with his remarks, by which Syrian government plans to renew railways to Jordan and Iraq, later eventually leading to Iran. Though that is not specifically the same project, it is fair to assume, that these were the preparatory steps. Not much was heard about this, but something clearly was going on, since by November 2018 it was clearly disclosed and widely covered, that Iran builds a route to Basra, which would be a “gift to Iraq”. And the long term aim was to bring this line to Damascus, and eventually to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. That project clearly envisioned a route from Basra to Mosul, from where to Dayr az-Zūr, to Aleppo, and finally to the coast. That track is even harder, since not only would cross Kurdish controlled areas, but even the province of Idlib in Syria, which is still full with terrorist organizations.
But whichever way it will go, why is that so important for Iran? Not to mention Syria. Analysts love to jump to the conclusion, that in this way Iran could tighten its control over Syria and directly support its key ally, Hizb Allah in Lebanon with weapons and materials. Three things, however, clearly contradict this assumption. First of all Syria is still holding on to final decisions even against the Russians, and Iran simply lacks the strength for direct control even in Iraq. On the other hand Hizb Allah not only exists since the ‘80s, and managed to grow stronger by the years, even managing to thwart Israel in 2006, but even survived the eight years of the Syrian conflict still keeping its strength. All that without this direct train connection. Last Saturday, 26 January even Hasan Nasr Allah in his usual extreme long interview with Lebanese al-Mayadeen tv mentioned that Hizb Allah already has all the desired precision missiles and in a satisfactory quantity. All that indicates, that Iran already has its way to support Hizb Allah without putting such extreme amount of hardly needed assets into a long term project. Nonetheless, train in our days clearly indicates transportation of goods, not so much people. So what goods the Iranians could have in mind? Here we could assume petrol goods, like oil, but Iranian economy has much more to offer. It is safer to assume, that this way, via Latakia, Tehran could finally get a harbor away from the Persian Gulf and the Straights of Hormuz. Meaning away from the watchful eyes of the Americans entrenched in the Arabic Gulf states, that are so utterly at odds with Iran. Also, it worths to mention, that Iranian officials, mostly the military many times announced, that in case of a major confrontation they can and shall close the Hormuz passage, choking the oil export of the Gulf countries. But that would cripple the Iranian economy as well, leaving no way to export its good. That would be equal to a suicide mission. Unless Tehran would have a backdoor. The effects would still by huge, but this greatly improved position could serve as a serious bargaining chip in the long run.
Thinking the other way around Latakia could be a major import doorway as well. Via this Syrian city Iran could have a safe port much closer to Europe, and could gain access much easier to European goods. Here we should not forget, that European states did their best to uphold the JCPOA even after the Americans withdrew from it. And weak this link as it is, both EU and Iranian partners are busy holding on to it. Let us assume, that they still wanted larger scale trade with Iran! All that has to go through the Gulf now. Making it easy for Washington to block it. Therefore the continuation of trade is way to complicated. But that all would change with such important asset. Also, that port is extremely close to Tartus, the second biggest Syrian harbor, which hosts a major and ever growing Russian military base. That could cover Tehran’s outer seaport from the south against possible Israeli aggression as well. So there is no need to think of weapons to grasp the magnitude of Latakia for the Rōhānī government. The case is much bigger than that. And major steps are clearly on the way. If one is to wonder the seriousness of Iranian devotion, on 29 January Syrian President Baššār al-Asad laid the foundation for a electricity station in Latakia in the presence of Electricity Minister Harbūtlī and his Iranian counterpart, Reza Ardahiyān. Which means a major Iranian electricity investment, a three years project right in this vital city. The timeline also shred some light on just how long term Iran thinks ahead with the railway tracks.
Friends farther away
This week also brought interesting guests to Tehran. Right at the same time when Jahangiri was busy visiting Damascus Chairman of the Algerian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, ‘Abd al-Hamīd Sī ‘Afīf payed a visit to Tehran. With a considerable delegation at his company, he meat with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarīf. The sides expressed their understanding on a number of issues as Tehran was happy to communicate its happiness with Algeria’s stance on certain Iran-related topics. Also, Sī ‘Afīf attached “great importance to its friendly and brotherly relations with Iran and is ready for extensive mutual cooperation.” That itself does not seem anything particular, since such visits are routine and Iran witnessed several similar courtesy visits even in the same week. But there is something very notable in this. It is hardly a coincidence, that while Tasnim and other Iranian news agency were happy to report on this visit, Algerian press was rather silent in the matter. Since this meeting is much more ironic, that it first seems.
To understand why, we should go back to 1 May 2018, when Morocco cut all its diplomatic ties with Iran and expelled its ambassador to Rabat. Though that move clearly came as a result of intense Saudi-Emirati and Egyptian pressure – with probable American backing – as these states were keen to express their support for Rabat, the official reason was rather interesting. Morocco claimed, that directly and via Hizb Allah Iran gave support to Polisario. This militant movement is officially fighting in Western Sahara to gain independence from Morocco. While Rabat and many other states view Polisario as a terrorist organization – and consequently Western Sahara as integral part of Morocco -, Algeria, the African Union, the U.N. and some forty countries recognized it as legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people. Iran is one of these states. Though officially Algeria claims a policy of non-interference in that matter, it gives place to the Polisario in Tindūf, where the organization’s self claimed government resides. So the quarrel initially between Morocco and Iran – which was in fact caused by the struggle between Saudi and Qatar and Morocco took the Saudi side – left Algeria in an awkward situation. The animosity between Algiers and Rabat is nothing new, nor the matter of Western Sahara and Polisario. But suddenly this was amplified by adding Iranian support to the list.
And for a side note, this could not really have happened in a worse time for Algeria. Ever since the so called Arab Spring started, the regional scenery kept appearing worse for Algeria. Libya falling apart was bad enough, as terrorists started incursions into Eastern Algeria rich in gas, but the Mali crisis made Algiers worry even more. Tunisia also experienced security problems in recent years and after all these years still lacks a stabile government. Simply, all around there is much to fear for Algeria right at the time, when presidential elections are upcoming in 2019. While President Bū Taflīqa was announced to run for a fifth term in office, his heath was worrisome even in 2014, many fearing he would not live to terminate his fourth term event. Which indicates a major problem in Algerian politics. No clear successor is on the horizon yet, as the last member of the whole state-founding revolutionary generation is to depart the scene. No wonder Algiers sees the traditional nemesis France behind all the troubles, and already tacitly tries to reach an understanding with Morocco. As both neighbors slowly come to realize, that regardless all their reservations for each other, they are still the best security partners in the short run.
So this new crisis between Iran and Morocco brought Algeria into a quarrel, which in fact had little to do with. Yet that was very unpleasant, since it not only put Algeria in a negative light along with Iran and its bad reputation, but discredited the Polisario matter. A project so dear to Algiers for decades. Not surprisingly, both state officials and intellectuals rushed to refute such claims, that Algeria would cooperate in such endeavors with Iran. Algerians, both officially and unofficially went great lengths to state that in fact there is no special relations between Algiers and Tehran. Nothing that would exceed the limits of normal relations between two not closely allied states.
Yet the relation seem to improve ever since Ahmadīnežād first visited Algiers in 2009, and later on he met with Bū Taflīqa several times. That seemingly friendly tie never changed since Rōhānī took office. That being stated, it still seems far fetched to assume, that Iran would invest assets into the Polisario matter. For several reasons. First of all Iran so far only engaged in risky and power consuming projects abroad for two aims. Either of ideological convictions, let it be positive like in Lebanon, or negative as towards the US. That does not seem to imply as Algeria is an almost exclusively Sunni state, and neither people view each other in a particularly positive light. Apart from ideology, Iran only takes commitments for direct and tangible economic or strategic reasons. That also seems no to imply here. Let alone military, even economical footholds taken in Algeria, stabile presence needs a stabile line of support. A clear and affordable access route, which from the Gulf is anything but easy. Under these conditions, while Syrian and Iraqi commitments are still high on the security agenda for Iran, how could Tehran sustain support for its own military presence in Algeria, or even for Hizb Allah. Let alone, that this has little gain to offer, nor has any deep-rooted ideological cause. That seems impossible. And that is. Unless Iran gains an easily accessible port to the Mediterranean. Like Latakia for example.
Views and visions
So do I want to suggest, that with Latakia Iran has an eye for Algeria? Not at all. But it easy to see just how much Iran can gain from both its commitments in Syria and Iraq, and from such seemingly humble projects as building a railway all the way to Damascus. Which, by the way is not some simple track from a third world country, but by the same mentioned report, even the section already operational until Basra is a high speed modern train service. Which if eventually reaches Latakia, can export Iranian goods to both sides of the Mediterranean, can serve as an access port to European goods, and be a bulwark of further economic expansion into Africa.
Even more, that project will be beneficial for both Iraq and Syria, for several reasons. From here we can have a fair estimation, what joint Syrian-Iranian investments can mean in the future. This project will help to further stabilize the block from Lebanon to Iran, which is in one hand viewed as axis of resistance, while labeled Shia Crescent on the other. Nonetheless, this forming allied group will have a stronger economic pillar, which once regains its security will likely to attracted Turkey onboard. As for Ankara this is not only an advantageous, but the only possible access route to support its recently gained ally, Qatar. Which, by the way, also closes steadily to Iran, as recent interviews and remarks suggest.
From all this one can see, that even though Iran is many times labeled as a rouge state, lead by senseless politicians, Tehran actually does not lack vision. Constantly working of projects ahead of many years, and this railway project is just a drop in the ocean. Arriving to Algiers by it eventually or not. And if one is to regard all that just wild speculation, there is but another small piece in the puzzle. In January 2018 Iranian train service was not only busy in Iraq and planning for the Mediterranean, but could welcome a long awaited guest. Three freight trains arrived to Tehran from China via Central Asian states, which is more than all the previous ones so far, ever since the line was completed in 2016. So continuous transport commenced, and eventually not only Iranian, but Chinese goods can pour down to the port of Latakia. Meaning this eventually vital line has Russian umbrella at the end, and Chinese backing all along.
Rōhānī and his staff has much to celebrate this week, even if international papers were not full of their deeds. And that they can thank for having vision.