Iran’s interest in Jordan

Kailani Photo
Strawberry picking in Franco Baraldi’s fields in Ferrara, Italy, on May 14, 2020. (Photo: New York Times)
Although Jordan has a reputation for having well-balanced ties with all the countries in the region, there is one state with whom relations have been particularly rocky. Simply put, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan do not get on very well.اضافة اعلان

Since its inception, Jordan’s alignment to the West and opposition to Iran’s hardcore Islamist ideology has caused major tension between the two countries. Further disputes arose from Jordan’s support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s support of the Syrian regime during the civil war there, and a foiled terror plot by an Iranian-backed group in Jordan in 2015.

However, this summer has seen a remarkable shift in rhetoric. Following numerous cooperation deals signed between Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan, Iran has expressed interest in further developing ties with Jordan.

Talks of Iran supplying Jordan with oil for 30 years via Iraq, as well as Iran building an airport in Karak to promote religious tourism to Jafar Ibn Abi Talib’s shrine, have become repeated among members of King Abdullah’s advisory board. In an effort to promote the site, His Majesty visited it in July, as some commentators say it could attract one million Shiite pilgrims a year.

Surely, this is great news for Jordan’s government, on account of the fact that it could help alleviate the economic crisis and Jordan’s overdependence on the Gulf Arab states. However, the change is so sudden, and most Jordanians hold strongly unfavorable views of Iran.

A Pew poll taken in 2015 found that 89 percent of Jordanians hold a negative view of Iran, meaning Jordanians have a more negative view of Iran than the US public does. Jordan had the second-most negative outlook on Iran, according to the poll, second only to Israel.

Given all of this, what has caused a once antagonistic Iran to want a role in Jordan, and why is our government welcoming them with open arms?

Strategic location

From a strategic standpoint, Jordan is an extremely advantageous place to have influence. Iran’s archnemesis, Israel, is right across the border, and it is no coincidence that Iran would decide to get involved at a time when, as King Abdullah has put it, relations between the two states are at “an all-time low”. Two years ago, neither country did anything to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the historic peace treaty, nor has the recent uptick of Israeli aggression against Palestinians helped matters.

Here, the Iranian government sees an opportunity to influence Jordan’s foreign policy in its favor. Iran has a history of trying to support Israel’s neighbors to keep the Zionist entity in check, namely via backing President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and having en entire proxy army by the name of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

However, neither of those countries are incredibly stable, whereas Jordan has a strong security apparatus, a lot of diplomatic clout, and a long border with Israel.

If Iran could get Jordan to adopt a more militant stance against Israel in exchange for providing much needed economic support for a debt-ridden Jordan, it would be a massive policy success. Iran may also seek to impact Jordan’s stance in regards to Syria.

The monarchy and the repressive Assad regime have been in conflict for a long time, which certainly was a major factor in Jordan training Free Syrian Army troops, sending arms to southern Syria and providing intelligence support to Syrian rebels.

Iran, on the other hand, has been one of the main foreign backers of the Assad regime, putting 3,000-5,000 Iranian soldiers on the ground, and sponsoring tens of thousands of militiamen tasked with upholding Assad’s rule. As the first foreign country to do this, their backing, which included tens to hundreds of billions of dollars, was a turning point in the war, and without them, the regime’s fate might have been very different.

It can be induced from all of this that maintaining influence in Syria is a top priority, which also puts developing ties with Jordan on the list. With renewed fighting between the regime and rebels in Daraa, a city that borders Jordan and is the birthplace of the 2011 revolution, Iran wants to ensure that no form of support trickles over the border.

To this end, Iran would want to offer a grand incentive to Jordan in exchange for assurances that Jordan will no longer strongly oppose the Syrian regime. This could be a reason why the King recently proposed cooperating with Russia and Syria to seek an end to the conflict. A belligerent stance on Syria could put the newborn Jordan-Iran relationship in jeopardy.

The tripartite alliance

As mentioned previously, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq are seeking to form a partnership that, if successful, could significantly change the dynamic of the region. The three countries supporting each other’s interests can create a front strong enough for these states to assert their sovereignty in the face of Gulf, Western, and Iranian interference.

Iraq’s main motivation for joining the alliance is to decrease its overdependence on Iran, who are gripping Mesopotamia with an iron fist. In an effort to give Iraq an alternative to buying electricity from Iran, Jordan has agreed to provide electricity to Iraq.

If the alliance becomes strong enough, it can become a way for Iraq to break free of Iranian chains, which Iran cannot let happen. In light of this, Iran may seek to co-opt the alliance to ensure that its influence is left untouched.
Should they choose to bankroll the deals between Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan, Iran would get quite a big say in the ultimate foreign policy objectives of the new entente.

After all, the main obstacle of the tripartite alliance is that all its members are cash strapped, meaning that its decisions cannot always be made with complete independence. Alternatively, if they financially benefit from the alliance, Iran may let it exist in peace, especially given the US’ heavy sanctions and Iran’s difficult coronavirus situation have strained its economy.
Based on these facts, Iran could be looking to aid Jordan with its economic and infrastructural projects for two reasons.

The first is to make sure that Jordan is dependent on Iranian financing, and will thus no longer be able to oppose the Iranian interference that has hampered the progress of many of its neighbors. The second is that Iran needs more sources of trade, and may see Jordan as a state that can act as a valuable conduit, particularly for the purpose of trading with other, more resourceful Middle Eastern states, such as Egypt.

It is possible that, in the future, the port of Aqaba will be useful for getting foreign exports into Iran. In the event that tensions between Iraq and the Gulf Arab states become worse, and getting supplies into Iran’s main port of Bandar-e-Abbas is no longer feasible, goods can come in through Aqaba, and then travel across land through Iraq until they reach the Iranian border.

Ironically, Iraq used this exact same approach when its access to the Arabian Gulf was cut off due to the Iran-Iraq war. In all likelihood, both reasons may be true to some extent. The first is risky for Jordan, so for our country’s policy makers, putting emphasis on the other reason should be the main goal when molding this potential relationship.

There is an important discussion to be had in deciding whether Jordan should pursue stronger ties with Iran, or if it should avoid running the risk of giving Iran too much mastery over its future.

Valid arguments exist on both sides of the debate, but for both the intelligent diplomats who run the show at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the everyday Jordanians who so dearly care about their country’s future, the reasons why Iran wants closer ties with Jordan must be looked at in detail before taking a decision or forming an opinion.

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