By Arab News
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh*
Since the uprising in Syria in March 2011, the Iranian regime has spent approximately $100 billion, roughly between $15 and $20 billion a year, to keep the Syrian regime in power. Some scholars and policy analysts argue that the Islamic Republic is losing politically, bleeding financially, and gaining nothing when it comes to the Syrian conflict.
While it is accurate to argue that the Iranian regime is hemorrhaging billions of dollars on the Syrian regime, Iranian leaders’ calculated measures and policies are, in fact, making Tehran profit from the conflict in both the short and long term. Tehran’s political opportunism in Syria is serving the Iranian regime ideologically, economically, geopolitically and strategically.
Economically speaking, Tehran’s trade with Damascus, specifically exports, has significantly increased during the war, as regional and international sanctions on the Syrian regime have made it more dependent on Iran for its merchandise and commodities.
Tehran is also reaping the benefits of long-term business deals in various Syrian sectors, such as energy and mining. It has signed lucrative contracts to provide electricity, obtained a license to become a major mobile phone service operator, which will allow Iran to keep communications in Syria under surveillance, and has received thousands of hectares of land from the Syrian regime for farming or setting up oil and gas terminals.
While Syrian law does not allow foreign citizens to buy or own real estate, Damascus appears to have made an exception for the Iranian regime. Iran is increasingly buying up Syrian real estate and land, giving Tehran a considerable amount of power over its neighbor in the long term. These investments appear to be done not only with Bashar Assad, but also with many Shiite militia groups. Portions of the real estate are located near Shiite religious sites, such as the Sayyidah Zaynab and Ruqayyah shrines in Damascus.
Tehran is also reportedly changing the demographics, for instance by repopulating some areas with Shiite families from Hezbollah and other militia groups in an attempt to consolidate its influence in Syria for the long term, as well as to bolster Assad’s rule.
Ideologically speaking, the Iranian regime is more forcefully and easily exporting its revolutionary principles via its non-military and military presence in Syria. The Islamic Azad University is planning on opening new branches in Syria, while Tehran has been building Shiite mosques and investing in expanding Shiite shrines across Syria.
Strategically and geopolitically speaking, the Iranian regime has strengthened its coalition of Shiite forces and militias, some of which invaded Syria from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Many of the Shiite militias in Syria have already become the bedrock of Syria’s socio-political and socio-economic infrastructures.
By having military bases and personnel in Syria, it is also less costly for the Iranian regime to manufacture and export weapons to its proxies in Syria’s neighboring countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Thanks to the Syrian conflict, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its special operations unit known as the Quds Force are also enjoying a military presence close to the border of a major rival — Israel. This helps Tehran to tip the regional balance of power in its favor. The IRGC is also establishing a permanent military base in the south of Damascus and has significant control over some Syrian airports.
It is also worth noting that, by keeping Assad in power, the Iranian regime is projecting its influence and military capabilities to the world. By depicting itself as a significant player in determining the direction and destiny of the Syrian war, Tehran is showing off its supremacy and pre-eminence in the region.
So, while it is accurate that the Iranian regime is hemorrhaging billions of dollars on Assad, it is reaping greater rewards now than it did prior to the conflict. The conflict has made Assad more vulnerable and he is willing to submit to Iran’s demands and pressure in order to stay in power. Iran’s regime is managing to benefit militarily, geopolitically, economically, ideologically and strategically in the short term and, more importantly, in the long term — regardless of whether Assad stays in power or not.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh