Pompeo, Putin or No One? Iran’s Difficult Choice

Days after Russian special envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev confirmed that it is Moscow’s intention to see the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria, including those legally present like Iranian troops and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo give a list of demands to Iran which would need to be fulfilled in order for the US to stop what was promised to be the “strongest sanctions in history” against any country.

Not only will the “strongest sanctions” threat scare a European Union that is already privately fearful of falling foul of US CAATSA sanctions for trying to preserve the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), but moreover, Pompeo’s threat makes it clear that in order for Iran to cultivate realistic (key word) trading partners, Tehran will need to do all that it can to remain on exceptionally good terms with the eastern superpowers China and Russia.

Pompeo’s demands were summarised in the Tweet below from journalist Joyce Karam:

The list includes some rather absurd demands including ending support for the Taliban. Now only does Iran not support the Taliban, but throughout the late 1990s, Iran backed the so-called Northern Alliance of Afghan factions opposed to the Taliban. In 1998 when Afghanistan’s then Taliban regime executed Iranian diplomats, there was even talk of a war between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban. So much was Afghanistan’s hatred for the Taliban that many in Iran privately supported the US war on Taliban ruled Afghanistan in 2001.

In respect of supporting Yemen’s Houthis, this US demand is almost equally absurd as the one regarding Afghanistan. Iran’s support for the Houthis is limited to diplomatic support. Because of the Saudi blockade of Yemen it would be impossible for Iran to supply the Houthis even if they wanted to. How the US can seriously claim that Iran can supply Houthi forces surrounded by hostile armed forces on both land and sea and be believed by anyone is a discredit to the collective intelligence of most journalists.

As for Iran shutting down its IR-40 heavy water reactor, the core of the rector was removed in 2016 and filled with concrete and when it comes to allowing International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into the country, this is was already agreed to in the JCPOA and thus far Iran has been totally compliant.

As for Iran’s ballistic missile programme, this was not even mentioned in the JCPOA and nor was the release of US citizen prisoners. These are just further examples of the US moving the goal posts long after the rules of the game had been mutually agreed.

Therefore when all is said and done, the only demand that the US is making which Iran could foreseeable execute is the withdrawal of troops from Syria and this is where things get interesting.

With both Russia and the US calling on Iran to vacate Syria but with very different tones and with very different long term intentions, Iran must at least temporarily abandon its more idealistic and far-reaching for Syria and the wider Arab world and must instead ask itself a fundamental, difficult but due to circumstance, a necessary question: Does Iran want to exit Syria like hero’s under Vladimir Putin’s terms or does Iran want to face humiliation and extreme military aggression (in Syria) from the United States and/or “Israel”? 

There is of course a third option which would be to remain in Syria against the wishes of both Washington and Moscow, so long as the Syrian government agrees, but this runs the risk of a full-scale “war on Iran” fought between the US and “Israel” on one side and Iran on the other. While Iran’s Syrian comrades would likely join Iran in the short term, the reality is that a war on Iran fought on Syria soil would first and foremost victimise the Syrian people who unlike the Iranian people or “Israelis” are still suffering from a seven wars war led by the Takfiri proxies of the west “Israel” and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. At some point if such a war were to become majorly destructive, even by the standards of what Syria has had to endure, Syrians themselves might question why they did not take Russia’s compromise agreement. According the this agreement, in exchange for a dignified Iran/Hezbollah withdrawal, Russia would force “Israel” to keep up its end of the bargain and stop attacking Syria.

Because of this, while Iran is likely not going to accept America’s absurd post-JCPOA demands, its only realistic options are to remain in Syria against Russia’s advice and publicly declared wishes or else work with Russia on a shift from a military engagement in Syria to a political process which would allow Iran to preserve its dignity, revel in its much deserved victory over Takfiri terrorism and play a constructive part of the peace process alongside Russia and Turkey in the Astana format that the US has no say in, cannot stop and has no realistic alternative to.

As I wrote prior to Pompeo’s remarks:

” For Iran itself, long-term “boots on the ground” involvement in the Arab world (with the possible exception of Iraq) will ultimately be an economic drain rather than an economic boost. Realistically, Iran’s most important trading partners, especially in a would-be post-JCPOA world are China, Russia, Turkey, parts of the Caucasus, parts of central Asia, Venezuela and perhaps most importantly, Pakistan.

If Iran follows Russia’s cues and opts for a phased withdrawal, it will allow Iran to focus on geographic regions where it stands to gain economically, all the while aiding Syria politically through the Astana format. All he while, Iran would be gaining more credibility among Sunni Arabs on the all important issue of Palestine by physically dispelling the myth of a “Shi’a/Iranian conspiracy”.

For some Iranians used to looking more towards the Arab world than to south, central and east Asia, this may be a bitter pill to swallow, but when the choice is between a possibly deadly war with “Israel” and opening up new economic horizons to the east, the choice ought to be a clear one for any Iranian economic patriot”.

Now the choice is all the more clear in light of Pompeo’s verbal provocation. Either Iran can work with the only large powers who have the ability to ignore America’s economic threats and preserve the domestic economy in a post-JCPOA world, while participating the Syrian peace process as a victor or otherwise, Iran can risk economic turmoil and a new war with the US and “Israel” simultaneously. Whatever Iran chooses, it may have to choose soon.

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