Iranian IRGC units have been fighting in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region. Photo: Twitter.
JNS.org – As the Trump administration considers its options regarding Iran, how much of Iran’s sanctions relief from the 2015 nuclear deal is funding Tehran’s support for sectarian conflict and terrorism across the Middle East?
Last week, President Donald Trump imposed new sanctions against Iran over its ballistic missile program and its human rights violations. The sanctions come amid Iran’s reported efforts to fuel the Temple Mount crisis, and its agreement to bolster relations with Hamas.
Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah also continue to back President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war, although Russia’s military support for Assad is far more important for Iran’s involvement there than the sanctions relief that Tehran obtained in the nuclear deal.
“I think what has been crucial for the expansion of Iran’s role in Syria, more than anything, has been the air support [Assad] has received from Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at Israel’s IDC Herzliya research college.
Javedanfar estimates that, so far, Iran has received less than $20 billion of the $150 billion in sanctions relief that it secured in the nuclear deal. Even if all of the sanctions relief money had been released immediately, he said, it “wouldn’t have been enough to save Syria.”
While the released funds have aided the Iranian regime, Javedanfar said that President Hassan Rouhani’s government is plagued by around $100 billion in debt carried over from former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure. The new sanctions leveled by the Trump administration will hamper Rouhani’s ability to attract foreign investment, but hardline entities such as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “will be happy since less economic growth will give them more ammunition against the government,” he said.
“The IRGC is responsible for these additional sanctions that were imposed,” Javedanfar said. The sanctions were levied after Iran fired a ballistic missile with a banner calling for Israel’s destruction. Javedanfar added: “The real intention of this launch, in practice, was to target Rouhani’s economic achievements.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said that it remains unclear how much of Iran’s sanctions relief funds have been diverted to causes such as Palestinian terrorism. But he said that “sanctions relief coupled with the campaign to ‘normalize’ Iran has enabled its fighters, money and weapons to go largely unchecked throughout the region.”
The Trump administration’s new sanctions are part of “a desperately needed strategy, since for over a decade, Iran’s regional ambitions and military programs took a back seat to the nuclear issue,” Taleblu said.
Ronen A. Cohen, an Iran expert and the chair of the Department of Middle East Studies at Israel’s Ariel University, said that “Iran will promote terror with or without the sanctions.” Cohen added that since 2015, Iran has spent less on regional terrorism due to Rouhani’s strategy to strengthen the Iranian economy through trade.
“Iran has a pragmatic strategy in the Middle East, and will invest money only where it gains something in return, irrespective of sanctions,” Cohen said.
Last week, Israel Hayom quoted a Palestinian Authority security official as claiming that Iran invested “millions of shekels” to inflame the tensions surrounding the Temple Mount. According to the report, tens of thousands of Muslim protesters received prepackaged meals along with notes citing a quote attributed to 1979 Iranian Revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: “With the help of Allah, Palestine will be liberated! Jerusalem is ours.”
Taleblu said that Iran’s Shiite regime “uses the Palestinian issue to drive a wedge between the Arab world and Israel, as well as to mask … ethno-sectarian differences with its Sunni Arab neighbors, and bolster its Islamist standing in the region.”
Iran has championed the Palestinian cause since its inception, and an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal “would rob Tehran of that card and render naked its regional aspirations,” said Taleblu.
“Iran’s longstanding provision of money and weapons to Palestinian terror groups tells you one thing: Iran has more to gain from perpetual conflict in the Levant and eastern Mediterranean than peace,” he said.
IDC Herzliya’s Javedanfar said that he has seen no real evidence that Iran was behind the recent tensions in Jerusalem. Rather, he said, Iran exaggerated its role in the Temple Mount crisis since “it feels isolated in the region because of its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and his atrocities against Sunni Muslims.”
Iran’s claims regarding the Temple Mount, Javedanfar said, show “how desperate the Iranian regime has become.”