TEHRAN/BEIRUT: The top commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard says the elite unit has high-level “advisers” in Lebanon and Syria but remains undecided on whether to send military reinforcements to help save Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Sunday’s comments by Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari mark the clearest indication of Iran’s direct assistance to its main Arab allies, Assad and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
It also suggests Iran is wary about being drawn into a Middle East conflict if outside forces attack Assad, who is locked in a civil war with rebels.
Jafari told reporters that Quds force members have been in Syria and Lebanon as advisers for a long time, but was not more specific.
Western states and Syrian opposition groups have long suspected Tehran has troops in Syria. Iran has denied this.
“A number of members of the Quds force are present in Syria but this does not constitute a military presence,” Iranian news agency ISNA quoted Jafari as saying at a news conference.
Jafari did not indicate how many IRGC members were in Syria but said they were providing “intellectual and advisory help.”
The Islamic Republic has backed Syria’s President Bashar Assad since the crisis began and regards his rule as a key part of its axis of resistance against Israel and Sunni Arab states.Jafari said decisions about whether to boost military aid to Syria if attacked would “depend on the circumstances.”
“I say specifically that if Syria came under military attack, Iran would also give military support but it ... totally depends on the circumstances,” he said.
Quds is an IRGC unit set up to export Iran’s ideology. It has been accused of plotting attacks inside Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
U.S. officials this month accused Iraq of facilitating the transfer of arms to Syria by opening its airspace to Iranian aircraft. Baghdad has denied the accusation.
Analysts say that losing its key Syrian ally would weaken the Islamic Republic’s ability to threaten Israel through Hezbollah.
Jafari also Sunday dismissed Israel’s threats of attack on Iran, saying Israel was having trouble persuading the United States to back its actions.
“Our answer to Israel is clear. In the face of such actions by the Zionist regime, nothing of Israel would remain,” he said.
He said any Israeli attack on Iran would also trigger retaliatory action on U.S. bases in the region and that trade via the Strait of Hormuz would be disrupted.
An attack on Iran would also call into question Iran’s commitment to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he said, comments that will cause concern among Western diplomats who want to find a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear program and avoid military consequences.
“If international organizations cannot stop Israel, Iran will not see itself as committed to its obligations. Of course this does not mean that we will go in the direction of a nuclear bomb,” Jafari said.
Tehran maintains its nuclear program is peaceful.