Tehran appears to be losing the race for Syria’s reconstruction despite all the blood, treasure and political capital the Islamic Republic has invested in the Assad regime’s survival over the past six years.
Iranian authorities clearly expected otherwise: On November 8, 2017, Ali-Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, visiting the Syrian city of Aleppo, declared Iran’s readiness to take part in Syria’s reconstruction. A few weeks later, Ebad-Allah Abdollahi, chief of Khatam al-Anbia Construction Base, the contracting arm of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), clarified Velayati’s statement by stressing that it will be Khatam al-Anbia that will “pioneer” Syria’s rebuilding. Iranian daily Donya-ye Eqtesad clarified Iran was particularly interested in engaging in infrastructure development such as construction of electrical power plants, factories, automobile assembly plants, roads, sea ports and petroleum facilities in Syria.
However, the thought is gradually dawning on Tehran that Iranian companies are not particularly welcome in Syria.
On January 17, Baztab, an outlet close to Mohsen Rezaei, former IRGC chief commander, warned: “According to an agreement reached between the governments of Russia and Syria, Iran and Iranian companies are almost sidelined from reconstruction and investment in this country… Should Iran desire to participate in Syria’s reconstruction, it must negotiate with Russia!”
On January 29, however, Shuaib Bahman, an Iranian analyst of Russian affairs, dismissed Baztab’s claim that Russia was sidelining Iranian businesses in Syria.
“No official, Russian or Syrian, has yet confirmed the existence of a consortium or even a general contract concerning Syria’s reconstruction…” But Bahman also admitted that the presence of a country in Syria’s reconstruction depends on “economic capacities of the investor,” and in that context “Tehran’s capacities are not as vast as those of Moscow and Beijing.”
Those reassurances do not seem to have calmed the IRGC. On February 17, Major General Rahim Safavi, senior military adviser to Khamenei, addressing a seminar on Syria, elaborated on Russia’s gains in Syria: “Russia… got a military base, as well as economic and political privileges… In my opinion, Iran too can have long-term political and economic contracts with Syria and receive returns for its investments. Right now, Iran is exporting from Syria’s phosphate mines.”
Iran’s export of Syrian phosphate however, is not gratis and is only allowed because of Iran’s generous oil exports to Syria. Safavi also seems not to comprehend Russian economic privileges constitute the greatest impediment to participation of Iranian companies in Syria, including those run by the IRGC.
Iran stands to lose in the post war reconstruction of Syria, and there is very little it can do to protect its interests in the face of Russia’s strategic interests. The widening gap between Tehran and Moscow in Syria once again reminds us that the transactional relationship between the two countries has not developed into a strategic alliance.