In Aleppo, portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin hang shoulder-to-shoulder with those of his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, signalling Moscow's rise at the expense of Damascus's other ally, Iran. The rivalry between the two primary backers of the Syrian government is becoming increasingly palpable, according to Syrian officials and a Russian analyst. Iran is proud to have intervened early on in Syria's six-year war, bolstering the Assad regime with men, weapons, and economic aid. But it was Russia, which entered the conflict with its first air strikes in support of Assad on September 30, 2015, that transformed its trajectory. "Although both countries support the regime, their strategies on how to defeat the uprising differ," said a Syrian member of parliament, speaking on condition of anonymity. The primary divergence is over Turkey, a years-long rebel backer with which Syria shares its long northern border.
Iranian pilgrims will participate in this year's annual hajj, Saudi Arabia said on Friday, after an absence last year during tensions between the regional rivals. "The ministry of hajj and the Iranian organisation have completed all the necessary measures to ensure Iranian pilgrims perform hajj 1438 according to the procedures followed by all Muslim countries," the official Saudi Press Agency said, referring to this year in the Islamic calendar. For the first time in nearly three decades Iran's pilgrims -- which would have numbered about 60,000 -- did not attend the hajj in 2016 after the two countries failed to agree on security and logistics. Riyadh and Tehran have no diplomatic relations, and tensions remain as Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia repeatedly accuses Iran of fuelling regional conflicts by supporting armed Shiite movements in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.
There was a light moment shared at the beginning of intense talks on Thursday when US Secretary of Defense James Mattis joked with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, reminding him of his failed assassination attempt in 2011 when he was ambassador in Washington. "Hello... always good to see you alive... The Iranians tried to murder you," Mattis said, as he greeted Jubeir and other members of the Saudi delegation led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mohammed bin Salman, who is also Saudi Arabia's defense minister, met with James Mattis at the Pentagon to discuss the challenge related to Iran's destabilizing regional activities.
As the global construction industry is facing the most difficult times ever, domestic construction companies have won 6 trillion won (US$5.3 billion) of deals in Iran in where economic sanctions were lifted. Daelim Industrial Co. obtained a 2.3 trillion won (US$2 billion) deal to improve oil refinery facilities at the end of December last year and signed its formal contract on March 12 (local time). Hyundai Engineering Co. also clinched a 3.8 trillion won (US$3.31 billion) project to build a petrochemical producing facility, and signed its formal agreement in Iran on the same day. In particular, the project is the largest-ever deal for a domestic constructor to clinch with a firm in the Middle Eastern country, Hyundai Engineering announced on March 13 that it signed the formal agreement worth 3.8 trillion won (US$3.31 billion) with AHDAF, a subsidiary of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), in Tehran on the 12th for the second phase of Phase 12 of South Pars gas field project, along with Hyundai Engineering & Construction (Hyundai E&C).
South Korea's Hyundai Motors, Middle East and Africa office director, Mike Song, signed a production agreement with Iran's Kerman Motors to start production of the Elantra model in the local firm's Kerman production facility, in the south of the country. The deal signed in Kerman on March 13 by representatives of both firms. Saman Firouzi, chief executive of Kerman Motor, said that his firm will also launch Hyundai Accent production line in September 2017. "Our target is to employ 10,000 people by 2019," he added. The company previously agreed with Hyundai at the end of 2016 to begin production of the Hyundai i10 and i20 hatchback models which are likely to go on sale following the Iranian New Year.
Iran's state grains buyer GTC purchased about 40,000 tonnes of rice from Thailand in an international tender this week, a deal which traders believe shows Iran's purchasing is returning to more normal patterns after sanctions were lifted. Traders said Iran has in past years largely purchased rice through lengthy direct negotiations as western sanctions imposed over the country's disputed nuclear program had curtailed international payments via banks. "I think this sale in a tender shows Iran is starting to return to more traditional purchasing patterns after the relaxation of western sanctions," one European trader said on Friday. "The sale was made by a U.S. multi-national trading house." Iran bought Hom Mali grade A rice from Thailand at about 600 euros ($645.54) a ton, they said. Prices had been sought in euros in the tender.
Speaking in an interview with Lebanon-based and Arabic-language al-Mayadeen news network on Thursday evening, Zarif described Israel's policies towards regional nations as vicious, stressing that Israeli authorities seek to conceal truth and advance their aggressive plots through the language of threats. "We have never expected Israel to adopt a peaceful and non-violent approach. We have got used to Israel's policies over the past years," he commented. The top Iranian diplomat also reiterated Tehran's preparedness to offer support and assistance to bring about national unity among Palestinians, terming the issue as an urgent "priority" for the Islamic Republic. Zarif then pointed to the resistance against the Israeli regime's aggressive acts, saying Tel Aviv's aggression against the besieged Gaza Strip and Lebanon taught the regime that Palestinian and Lebanese nations are not soft targets.
Iran's navy has announced it will reinforce presence in international waters in the future thanks to its improving capabilities, its commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said on Wednesday. "We will have stronger presence in international waters, expand the scope of naval exercises, and develop production of equipment... (in the coming year)," Sayyari was quoted as saying. Touring around the Khoramshahr Naval Base in southwestern Iran, Sayyari underlined that the navy now enjoys cutting-edge military hardware manufactured in Iranian companies. "In the (Iranian calendar) year 1396 (which begins on March 21), we will take greater strides in the field of developing the navy's capabilities," he stated. In November 2016, Tehran announced plans to create three naval bases and two naval zones on the costs of Makran, along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, what Sayyari characterized as a sea comeback.
There are many indications that the war in Syria is entering a new and less vicious phase in the uneasy reconstitution of a "New Syria". Around al-Quneitra, only 60km southeast of Damascus, however, and particularly along the nearby Golan frontier, contesting parties are escalating efforts to control the agenda on the ground and at the negotiating table. It is no accident that the region bordering the Israeli-occupied plateau from Shebaa to the Yarmouk has been one of the quietest and less destructive fronts of the war. Israel's commanding presence in an area that is peripheral to the interests of the war's major antagonists has muted the war. The regime, with its regional allies and Russia on one side, and an opposition of all stripes on the other, have each been more interested in fighting each other than the Israelis.
Six years into the crisis in Syria, Iran sees the outcome of the conflict as shaping the new Middle East. It was Iran's first overt foreign intervention in decades, one that some Iranian ideologues have called a war for existence. Iranian officials say it spared the Islamic Republic from having to fight a similar war within its own borders. Yet it has been costly, draining and merciless in terms of material losses, and even worse when it comes to Iran's image in the Muslim world. It has limited Iran's options and has caused alliances - notwithstanding the common ground Iran shares with its partners - to seem very shaky and fragile. The source said the conflict in Syria has not been a traditional war where things can easily be anticipated: "The mandate was changing from one day to another. When Iran decided to take part in the war via our military advisers, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was on the verge of falling. More than 70% of the country was under [the control of] terrorist groups who were enjoying widespread international, regional states' and popular support. Today, President Assad has the upper hand, and the world knows well that he's the only choice for those who seriously want to defeat terrorism. Yet this is not the final phase."
Addressing worshippers in Tehran on Friday, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had better realize that the tyrannical and oppressive conducts are going to destroy the Saudi regime, instead of accusing Iran of seeking to eliminate the kingdom. How would the Saudi monarchs explain the killing of women and children and the bloodshed they have caused in Yemen in their military campaign, the cleric asked. He also noted that Saudi Arabia is not the only side to be blamed, but the international organizations have also lost their credibility by remaining silent on the crimes committed against Muslim people in Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. The cleric also reaffirmed Iran's commitment to supporting the oppressed people.
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih on Thursday said relations between his country and the United States have never been better, and the two nations are fully aligned in confronting Iranian aggression. The minister made his comments during a visit to Washington D.C. with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the young and highly influential royal at the helm of Saudi Arabia's economic diversification and military. Falih's comments mark a turning of the page following a rocky relationship between the Kingdom and the Obama administration, which negotiated an historic multilateral deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia's chief geopolitical rival in the Middle East. Falih said the visit solidified the "importance" of the relationship and allowed for a better understanding with the new administration on a broad range of issues. Falih also serves as chairman of state oil giant Saudi Aramco.
While Iranian conservatives are doing their best to form a coalition ahead of the upcoming May 19 presidential elections, parliament Speaker Ali Larijani has thrown his weight behind moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who is seeking re-election. During recent months, conservatives have called on most of the prominent conservative figures and parties to put aside their differences and reach a consensus over a single candidate for the elections. Many conservatives say that the presence of more than one candidate will result in Rouhani's re-election, given that several conservative figures ran for office in the 2013 vote. Larijani, as one of the conservative figures who has strongly supported Rouhani during his presidency, has gradually distanced himself from the conservative camp, which is now controlled by hard-liners, and he has joined the moderation camp as one of its prominent figures. While some expected Larijani to join the conservative coalition - the Popular Front of Revolutionary Forces, or JAMNA - formed late last year, he did not.
OPINION & ANALYSIS
If the Trump administration is serious about taking on Iran in the Middle East it must transform its strategy in Syria for fighting the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Our current strategy will only continue to strengthen Tehran's grip on the region. The US needs a new approach that gives it the independence and leverage it needs to begin pushing back successfully. It won't be easy. The strategy the administration inherited from President Obama sees Iran as a partner in the fight. The U.S. has therefore done nothing to contain the dramatic and alarming Iranian expansion of military power in Syria. Yet the expansion was avoidable. Tehran had used Syria as a base for Lebanese Hezbollah, HAMAS, and its own subversive activities for decades at no cost. The 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad was a blow to its position. Therefore Iran rushed to support Assad, sending in special Qods Force operatives, then advisors from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Reports indicate remnants of President Obama's Iran policy team in the State Department, known for its penchant for appeasement toward Tehran, have maintained a presence, albeit residual, in President Trump's administration. This issue is of special concern as these individuals have a history of close ties to the regime in Tehran and a notorious Iranian lobbying group in the United States. Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who formerly served as the Iran director of the National Security Council during Obama's tenure, has managed to find herself a position in the administrative team working under Trump. While enjoying access to the White House in the past, Nowrouzzadeh is now head of the State Department's policy planning staff focusing specifically on Iran and the flashpoint Persian Gulf region which Tehran has used as a stage recently to raise tensions with Washington.