Iran Is in Syria to Stay

Iran Is in Syria to Stay

The New U.S. Administration Has to Factor Tehran Into Its Plans

Early last week, Iraqi officials announced that an airstrike had killed a commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as he entered Syria from Iraq on November 29 with a consignment of weapons. The news came just days after another high-ranking IRGC officer, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom intelligence agencies have long viewed as the mastermind behind Iran’s previous covert nuclear weapons program, was assassinated near Tehran. Although Israel has, characteristically, remained silent, its intelligence organization is widely suspected of both killings.  

Iranian officials were quick to blame Fakhrizadeh’s death on Israel and to promise retaliation. But they have refused to acknowledge that an attack on IRGC forces near the Iraqi-Syrian border —let alone one that killed a senior commander—even took place. A day after Fakhrizadeh’s funeral procession was broadcast on state television, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry derided reports of an IRGC general’s killing in Syria as “media propaganda.”

Iran has good reason to avoid drawing attention to its activities in Syria. The regime has long downplayed its role in that conflict. In recent days, American analysts have largely focused on whether Iran’s promised revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s killing could derail U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s hopes of reviving the Iran nuclear deal. But Tehran’s engagement with Damascus remains a danger to regional stability. Tensions between Iran and Israel over Syria are escalating rapidly and may force the Biden administration to act there soon after taking office.