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Tony Badran

How to read Jordan's
surprise opening to Iran

Amman is not about to acquiesce to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their militias setting up base on its border

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh (L) shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) during a press conference on January 14, 2014 in Amman. (AFP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

On Sunday, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, made headlines over comments he made about Iran’s sway in the region. “Iran is present in Iraq and Lebanon,” Soleimani reportedly said, “and both countries are subject to Iran’s will and ideas.” As far as such statements go, they are fairly routine. What raised eyebrows was what Soleimani said next; that Iran has the ability to stir things in Jordan as well. 

 

Soleimani’s comments caused a commotion in Jordan, and the Iranians quickly denied that such remarks were made. In truth, Soleimani indeed had made these remarks, only he did so three years ago. Still, that they resurfaced at this particular time is curious, as they coincided with an intriguing communication between Jordan and Iran.

 

Earlier this month, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh paid a surprise visit to Tehran—the first by a senior Jordanian official in eight years. While in Iran, Judeh stated that the main regional issue was the growth of terrorism and extremism, and noted that it would be good to open a dialogue between Iran and some Arab states.

 

Judeh’s visit set off a storm of conjecture in the Arabic media, as shocked analysts tried to unpack the meaning of the move. Some wondered if it represented an outreach to Iran, now that the Obama White House has effectively partnered with it across the region. Analysts also noted the odd timing of the visit, coming after the new Saudi monarch met with the leaders of Sunni states, including King Abdullah, in what was seen as an effort to create a Sunni bloc to counter Iran. For its part, the Jordanian royal court kept mum and supposedly gave word to the political parties not to opine on it.

 

To best understand Amman’s calculus, we should situate it in the context of the Iranian role in southern Syria. In the weeks leading to Judeh’s trip to Iran, Jordan’s unease with Iran’s expansion near its border was being aired out in the media. Former Jordanian Information Minister Saleh al-Qallab was unambiguous in an Asharq Al-Awsat column in February. Through the Shiite militias commanded by Qassem Soleimani, Al-Qallab wrote, “Iran is looking to turn the Syria-Jordan border to an Iran-Jordan border. This is something that Jordan can never accept, even if it leads to a war.” 

 

As the Iranians began their push into the Daraa region, Jordan became a target for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, which began attacking Amman for tolerating and supposedly aiding Jabhat al-Nusra along its border. The aim was to force Jordan to cut off support to the Syrian rebels and to accept the reality of the Iranian presence instead. 

This was a bridge too far. 

 

The Jordanian game is a careful balancing act. Amman maintained a line to the Assad regime, and was comfortable with its continued presence along its border. There was even talk that Jordan deliberately cut off supplies to the rebels in May 2013 (coinciding with a notable, and tense, visit to Amman by the Iranian foreign minister) during the battle of Khirbet al-Ghazaleh—an important town on the vital Damascus-Jordan highway—which led to its recapture by the regime. The Jordanians were careful to signal that their support for the rebels in the south would not go as far as to threaten Damascus, and that Jordan supported a political solution.

 

However, over the past year, the Syrian regime’s position in the south has deteriorated, and Assad became dependent on the Iranians and their militias in conducting operations.

 

Facing the prospect of the Islamic State (ISIS) moving in—with suspicions that the Assad regime would facilitate such an advent—and seeing that an Iranian command had replaced Assad, the Jordanians backed the rebels they had been working with for years as a buffer in the border region.

 

The situation came to a head in the town of Bosra, in the southeast of Daraa, near the border. The town was controlled by Hezbollah and the Iranians, but was being attacked by the Syrian rebels. Notably, a week after Judeh returned from Tehran, the Jordanian military went on alert near the border on 16 March, and a few days later the rebels took Bosra. 

 

This sequence of events suggests that discussing the Iranian role in southern Syria was indeed a primary purpose of Judeh’s trip to Tehran. As was leaked to Al-Hayat, the Jordanians sought to “inquire about the goal of the Iranian presence on their border.” The Iranians allegedly reassured Judeh that it was simply to secure Hezbollah in south Lebanon, “with no harm to Jordan.” Clearly, the Jordanians didn’t buy it. But they were also careful to maintain their balancing act, hence Judeh’s conciliatory remarks. 

 

The Jordanians aimed to hit several birds with one stone. They gave a nod to the Obama administration, which has been pushing the Arab states to reach an understanding with Tehran, and also stayed on point by emphasizing the priority of fighting terrorism. At the same time, Amman reassured the Saudis while simultaneously using the opening to Iran to obtain some financial assistance from the Gulf states. Far from going against the Saudi bloc, the Jordanian military is participating in the Saudi-led coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. But Jordanian journalists also aired leaks about Amman’s disappointment with the lack of aid from the Gulf Arabs, even as Jordan is carrying the burden of the war in Syria. This message was echoed by other Gulf writers who quickly called for supporting Jordan.

 

In the end, the Jordanians, ever aware of their vulnerability, are looking to maintain their delicate balancing act. However, for all the expressed concerns about ISIS, Amman is not about to acquiesce to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their militias setting up base on its border. King Abdullah knows what such a development would mean for the kingdom’s security, regardless of whether Soleimani’s comments were made now or three years ago.

 

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

 

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh (L) shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) during a press conference on January 14, 2014 in Amman. (AFP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

As the Iranians began their push into the Daraa region, Jordan became a target for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, which began attacking Amman for tolerating and supposedly aiding Jabhat al-Nusra along its border. The aim was to force Jordan to cut off support to the Syrian rebels and to accept the reality of the Iranian presence instead.

  • يسترجي

    Actually, Jordan does not fear Iran, it only fears a pointless war between Sunnis and Shiites. It is their duty to attempt to stop any such war from happening. On the other hand, politically as well as otherwise, they have stood up against Syrian pro-Iranian baath and with Iraqi baath for decades, they have a clear determination to stand against Iran in every diplomatically possible way until diplomacy fails.

    March 28, 2015