The Jerusalem Declaration on the US-Israel Strategic Partnership commits the United States and its top Middle East allies “to use all elements of their national power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Whilst hailed by some observers as a dramatic policy commitment by the United States, the Islamist Republic is unimpressed. The regime does not believe that Israel has the necessary tools to hit its underground nuclear facilities and, more importantly, it remains unconvinced that Washington is willing to stand by its declaration. 

Major General Hossein Salami, has cultivated an aggressive anti-American stance

There are several reasons for Iran’s sceptical position. To begin with, there has been a dramatic shift in the structure of Iran’s security decisionmaking. On April 21, 2019, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fired Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who considered defying the Trump administration a risky strategy. His replacement, Major General Hossein Salami, has cultivated an aggressive anti-American stance and ordered several high-profile operations in the Gulf waters: attacking oil tankers, shooting down US drones, and bombing Saudi oil infrastructure. In February 2020, the ‘principalists’ (osoul-gara) – hardline Iranian conservatives – won 230 of the 290 parliamentary seats and, in August 2021, the hardline Ebrahim Raisi, best known for his role in the massacre of political prisoners, won the presidency.

The move towards radicalism affected the key centers which deliver intelligence evaluations, including the IRGC’s Center for Sustainable Security Studies, the Center for Strategic Studies (the research arm of the Iranian president’s office), and the Expediency Council’s Strategic Research Institute. Collectively, these intelligence units feed into the main intelligence product that the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) discusses. Thus, by definition, the SNSC that is populated by hardline conservatives is designed to reflect the radical assessments provided by the intelligence units.

Formed in 1989 to advise the Supreme Leader on security matters, the SNSC is staffed with former and serving Revolutionary Guards members. The current secretary of the Council is Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a former commander of the IRGC’s Navy and the architect of its aggressive anti-access, area denial strategy (A2/AD). Other senior members are Salami and Ahmad Vahidi, a former high-ranking IRGC commander, Minister of Defense in the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and one of the ultra-hardliners in Tehran. Among others, Vahidi was implicated in bombing the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Although meetings of the SNSC are secret, media platforms close to the regime reflect its strategic assessments.

The regime’s leaders do not expect the Biden administration to deliver the muscular support needed to make the Jerusalem Declaration a viable threat.

Four points are worth noting. First, the regime’s leaders do not expect the Biden administration to deliver the muscular support needed to make the Jerusalem Declaration a viable threat. Since his election, Tehran has considered President Biden a weak figure, famously naming him a “wet noodle.” His low opinion polls and economic difficulties have only added to this perception. The president’s age, his apparent cognitive difficulties, and the fact that two-thirds of Democrats do not want him to run in 2024 seem to blunt the support the Jerusalem Declaration promises. As Kayhan Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, stated, “with such a weak economy…and messed up internal situation, America is too powerless to help Israel or Saudi Arabia.” Ali Akbar Velaati, the long-time senior adviser to Khamenei and the head of the Expediency Council Research Institute, put it bluntly: “Joe Biden is the best image of America: old, weak, and senile.”

Second, the SNSC and its various analytical centers have carefully monitored the Biden administration’s reaction to a long string of Iranian provocations in the Gulf and beyond, including the smuggling of oil, acts of naval piracy, and attacks on Saudi facilities by the Houthi proxies. In fact, in a quiet concession, Washington allowed Iran to sell ~755,000 barrels of oil per day to China. As a rule, Western observers consider Biden’s restrained approach to be part of the diplomatic efforts to induce Iran to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, the SNSC views the administration’s lack of action as a failure of political will to deter the regime.

Tehran expects the bulk of America’s manpower and resources to be mobilized against the Chinese geopolitical threat.

Third, the messy American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the CIA’s decision to replace the Iran Mission Center with the China Mission Center signaled to the Iranians that this strategic shift in US foreign policy was real. According to intelligence assessments, Tehran expects the bulk of America’s manpower and resources to be mobilized against the Chinese geopolitical threat. Tehran’s recent “friendship agreements” with China and Russia have bolstered Iran’s sense of geopolitical security, not to mention the notion that it is on the right side of history. In the words of the head of the Expediency Council’s Strategic Research Institute, “the US economy weakness does not support another war in the Middle East. American power and hegemony are on the decline, and Washington can no longer play a key role in global issues and achieve desired results. And this is the time when regional powers like Iran can fill the vacuum and challenge America.”

Fourth, Ayatollah Khamenei has been reluctant to engage in the negotiations on reinstating the nuclear accord. Khamenei is a chief proponent of the so-called “Resistance Economy,” a vision that would see Iran relying entirely on its own resources to be immune to foreign pressure. Accordingly, Iran would reduce its dependence on oil revenue, isolate itself from global markets, and rely on local resources. In his words, “the key and remedy to the country’s problems stands in promoting internal production.” The Supreme Leader’s preferences hint at the long-term strategy to get around the Jerusalem Declaration. By dragging out the negotiations, the regime plans to produce enough enriched uranium to qualify as a “threshold state.” Once this stage is achieved, Tehran hopes to blackmail the United States into downgrading its commitment to the Declaration. Indeed, President Raisi has already threatened to “blow up the Middle East,” using the “Axis of Resistance,” Tehran’s proxy network.

As every student of international relations knows, diplomacy cannot succeed without a robust deterrence effect. The United States needs to refurbish its tarnished deterrence image as soon as possible. Two immediate steps would persuade the SNSC that the Biden administration can stand behind its verbal commitment. First, the US Navy should increase its interdiction and other efforts against Iran. Second, Washington should publicly transfer to Israel the military technology necessary to potentially undertake an effective kinetic action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The Syrian Conflict: Reflections and Prospects

Held on 10 November, 2022


Ola Rifai | Senior research fellow and the Deputy Director for Outreach at the Centre for Syrian Studies.

Mohamad al-Ashmar | Humanitarian professional and consultant in international development and humanitarian crises. International Relations doctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews (UK).

Dr Francesco Belcastro | Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Derby (UK) and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrew.

Professor Raymond Hinnebusch | Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Founder and director of the Centre for Syrian Studies.


“Agency has largely passed from Syrians to external powers.”

The nature and impact of external influence in the Syrian conflict was the most prominent issue discussed by the panel. The speakers concurred that the persistence of international interference by powers such as Russia and the US play a harmful and restrictive role in the region, which ultimately prevents the resolution of the conflict.

Tracking Russia and Iran’s support of the Syrian regime since the 2012 uprisings, Dr Belcastro argued that the Syrian regime is reliant upon these powers to the extent of surrendering its autonomy. In light of recent distractions which threaten Russia and Iran’s support of the regime, namely civil unrest in Iran or Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of the regime’s ability to hold its ground can be brought into question. Belcastro argued that regardless of the extent of engagement, these external powers will continue to play the role of ultimate guarantor for the Syrian regime, as the regime remains too weak to stand on its own.

Professor Hinnebusch discussed the role of US interference and influence on the conflict, highlighting the superpower’s recent shift in approach from primary to secondary sanctions. Painting a bleak picture, Professor Hinnebusch outlined the key consequences of these sanctions as economic collapse and escalation into further humanitarian crisis. At the societal level, he argued that the sanctions are failing to spawn revolt and have instead instilled a sense of hopelessness, with the struggle for daily economic survival debilitating the Syrian people’s political agency.

“Demographic engineering is reconstructing identity and provoking identity clashes.”

A key theme evoked by the speakers was the relevance and centrality of identity within the Syrian conflict. The speakers explored the topic of identity through the perspective of different players within the conflict, from the Syrian diaspora to Syrian people who remain in the region.

Emphasising the delicate historical process of identity construction and reconstruction for the Syrian people, a panellist criticised Turkey’s recent inorganic transplantation of 1 million Syrian refugees into North Syria, a land which was historically ethnically mixed and is surrounded by Salafi militias, as disruptive to the natural process of identity construction. Taking a more positive stance, a panellist explored the role of Syrian identity as a mobilising force. Focusing on the power of the Syrian diaspora in the Syrian relief effort, they emphasised the force of the
Syrian diaspora in constructing hundreds of charitable organisations worldwide in support of those in Syria, and the way in which the common Syrian identity felt by those involved has helped fuel collective mobilisation. However, the panellist resigned to the limitations of this form of resistance, acknowledging that the diaspora is ultimately incapable of significantly impacting the political situation in Syria.

“The importance of sect was over romanticised.”

The panel was critical of the tendency of Western political figures and media to overemphasise the role of sectarianism in the Syrian conflict. Dr Belcastro cited this as an oversimplification of multifaceted political tensions by Western powers. Similarly, a panellist identified this tendency as a manifestation of the wider historical trend of the West imposing orientalist lenses upon Middle Eastern subjects. This depiction of the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms ultimately places identity groups as oppositional forces, ultimately fuelling inter-group conflict.

Dr. Belcastro expanded this thought beyond the immediate context of Syria, suggesting that this sectarian lens is imposed by the West onto the wider Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape, such as the ongoing tensions between Iran and the Gulf nations. The speakers posed the question of how, acting from within this imposed sectarian lens, the Syrian regime will attempt to negotiate reintegration into regional politics in the near future.

“External Interference is unlikely to ever withdraw entirely.”

Ultimately, the panel agreed that moving forward, the prospect of a Syria without any form of external interference is a fantasy. External actors have invested too much into the conflict to completely absolve themselves of all influence. Ultimately, as we have seen with the US’s shift toward secondary sanctions, it is expected that external powers such as the US and Russia will simply recalibrate the way in which they choose to interfere. Neither Russia nor the US are predicted to completely abandon their role within the conflict.

“The Success or failure of the US’s secondary sanctions on Syria have implications on the global order.”

Russia and China are expected to push back against the US’s secondary sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime, which punishes any company or state who chooses to do business with those that do business with Syria. Moves such as attempting to reduce the use of the dollar in international trade and producing an alternative world banking payment system have been triggered, in part, by these sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime. This has implications far beyond the Syrian context. This act of defiance suggests a gradual shift toward a multipolar global financial order, which would see the US removed as the global financial hegemon.

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