Jordan is concerned about the growing Iranian military presence in southern Syria, only a few kilometers from Jordanian border towns, according to local experts and various media reports. On March 16, Free Syrian Army (FSA) officials and Syrian opposition activists said that thousands in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), backed by Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shiite militias, were positioned along three border points with Jordan in southern Syria.
The FSA officials estimated the number of Iranian and Shiite fighters at 15,000. The report said that Jordan was coordinating with Syrian rebels in the area. These Jordanian concerns surfaced after revelations that the Damascus regime had launched a military campaign to recover areas under rebel control in Daraa and Quneitra in the south and southwest of the war-torn country.
Other reports said that head of Iran’s Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, had appointed an Iranian military deputy in southern Syria to oversee operations in that area. The presence of Iranian fighters so close to Jordanian towns in the north is a cause of worry for the regime, which has focused its attention on checking the advance of Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Syria and Iraq. Jordan is a member of the US-led coalition that was formed last year to carry out airstrikes against IS.
Iran’s territorial presence in southern Syria is believed to be the main reason behind a surprise visit that Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Judeh paid to Tehran on March 7.
Judeh met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and delivered a handwritten letter from King Abdullah. Jordan’s official news agency said Judeh explained the kingdom’s stand on a number of issues including “the fight against extremism and confronting attempts to distort the image of Islam.” Both Judeh and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, reiterated the need to bilaterally improve the relationship, the agency reported.
Diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor that Judeh also called on the Iranian president to initiate dialogue with the Arab League over issues of common concern, especially in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
The Foreign Ministry, however, refused to comment officially on the surprise visit. In a meeting between Judeh and members of parliament, the minister denied that his visit signaled “a pivot” toward Iran and preferred to call it “opening a channel of communication” with Tehran.
It was not clear if Jordan had consulted its Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, before dispatching the foreign minister to Tehran.
A diplomatic source in Amman told Al-Monitor that it is highly unlikely that Jordan would take such a unilateral step without “getting the nod” from Riyadh. Political analyst Oraib al-Rantawi disagreed and told Al-Monitor that Judeh’s visit was an independent act "underlining Jordan’s realization of changing geopolitical realities in the region."
Jordan, he said, had tried to initiate dialogue between Iran and Sunni powers amid rising concerns over Tehran’s role in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Amman had hoped to keep the focus on fighting IS militancy and extremism. King Abdullah had called, as recently as March 28, on Arab states to form an alliance to stand up to extremist ideologies.
Qatari political analyst Mohammed al-Misfer, who usually supports Jordan’s foreign policy, criticized Judeh’s visit to Tehran saying that Iran will look upon it as “recognition of its rising regional hegemony.”
But he wrote in the London-based al-Arabi al-Jadeed newspaper that Jordan’s latest initiative could be justified since Amman feels that “Gulf states have shied away from it at a time when it is facing an unprecedented economic crunch compounded by the cost of hosting more than a million Syrian refugees.”
Relations between Amman and Tehran have been tepid for more than a decade. King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to warn of a “Shiite crescent” led by Iran as early as 2004.
But last September, Jordan announced that it had appointed a new ambassador to Tehran, signaling a possible thaw in relations. Sectarian confrontations in Syria and Iraq and reports of atrocities being carried out by Shiite militias against Iraq’s Sunni population have tarnished Iran’s image in Jordan and the rest of the Sunni world.
Expert on Islamist movement Mohammad Abu Rumman told Al-Monitor that one of the reasons for the rise of IS militancy in Iraq and Syria is the feeling among Sunnis of a sectarian conspiracy being prepared against them led by Iran.
With Saudi Arabia waging an airstrikes campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, two days before the convening of the Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheikh on March 28, Jordan’s effort to keep the focus on fighting Islamist terror seems to have been scuttled.
The summit declared support for Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, which Jordan had joined — some, like Rantawi, say reluctantly — but it became obvious that Amman wanted other pressing issues to be discussed at the meeting, particularly Islamist extremism and the Palestine question. King Abdullah left Sharm el-Sheikh less than an hour after the summit had convened, signaling his displeasure with the meeting’s agenda.
Today, Jordan finds itself in a difficult position as it seeks to preserve its role in the international coalition fighting IS militants, while having to bear the hefty financial cost of its involvement. Its latest engagement with Iran may have been its way of drawing attention to regional priorities. It is not clear if its allies had understood its message.
On March 22, Soleimani was reported to have said that Tehran had the ability to control events in Jordan, as it does in Iraq and Lebanon. The Iranian Student News Agency quoted the general as saying that Iran has a presence in Lebanon and Iraq and that both countries are yielding to Iranian interests. He added that Iran has the ability to control Jordan in the same way.
His comments, which the Iranian Embassy in Amman was quick to deny, resulted in an uproar among local lawmakers. A statement by the IRGC described what was attributed to Soleimani as pure fabrications.
Still, Jordanian diplomacy is trying to maintain a balance between committing its efforts to thwarting IS expansion, while dealing with the emerging challenge of having Iranian fighters along its borders with Syria. On March 24, government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said: “Jordan and other nations in the coalition and in the region will jointly train … Syrian tribes to fight against the terrorist bands.” He also said Amman was ready to train and arm forces in Iraq for their “war on terrorism.”
Political analyst Fahed al-Khitan told Al-Monitor that it is clear fighting IS is no longer the No. 1 target for Gulf countries. “Bombing Daesh [IS] is now a US or Western responsibility, and this new position must worry the regime in Jordan,” he said.
The airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen — which 10 Arab countries had joined — is likely to shift attention from the war on IS militants in Iraq and Syria, Abu Rumman told Al-Monitor. Saudi Arabia has managed to make standing up to the Iranian regional threat in Yemen the No. 1 priority — something that Jordan may not agree with entirely. With Iranian and Shiite fighters so close to its northern borders, Amman feels that fighting IS insurgency must remain the primary objective, while engaging Tehran diplomatically at the same time.
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