BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman demanded Monday official clarification from Tehran over remarks made by a senior Iranian commander that they have military advisers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon.
Sleiman made the request during a meeting with Iran’s Ambassador to Lebanon Ghazanfar Roknabadi, who denied there were military advisers in the country, according to a statement released by the president’s office.
Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the top commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, said Sunday his forces have a number of high-level advisers in Syria and Lebanon.
His remarks came under fire by March 14 politicians and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt.
Jafari’s comments marked the clearest indication of Iran’s direct assistance to its main Arab allies, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
He told reporters the Guard’s Quds force members have been in Syria and Lebanon as “advisers” for a long time, but did not elaborate.
Roknabadi denied there were Guard members in Lebanon, saying that Jafari’s comments were related to questions about the situation in Syria.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast also denied that his country had any military presence in the region, particularly in Syria.
“Reports by some Arabic and Western media, citing ... Jafari were selective, false and with political aims,” Mehmanparast told Iran’s Al-Alam television. “Iran has no military presence in the region, especially in Syria.”
It was not immediately possible to explain the apparent contrast between Mehmanparast and Jafari’s remarks.
Jafari’s comments had been the first official acknowledgement that Iran had military personnel on the ground in Syria, where an 18-month-old uprising against the Iranian-backed Syrian government has left tens of thousands dead.
Western states and Syrian opposition groups have long suspected Tehran has troops in Syria supporting regime forces against rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. Iran has denied such accusations.
“A number of members of the Quds Force are present in Syria but this does not constitute a military presence,” Iranian news agency quoted Jafari as saying at a news conference.
Jafari did not indicate how many Guard members were in Syria but said they were providing “intellectual and advisory help.”
Iran has supported Assad since a popular uprising against his regime began in March last year.
Meanwhile, Jumblatt and March 14 politicians lashed out at Jafari’s statement on the presence of Quds force’s members in Syria and Lebanon.
“The statement has raised question marks as if the Lebanese and Syrian peoples needed lessons and advice on resistance and dignity,” Jumblatt said in his weekly article to be published in the PSP’s weekly newspaper Al-Anbaa Tuesday.
“The entire Lebanese people had struggled for liberation and getting rid of [Israeli] occupation] as they did for the sake of freedom, sovereignty and independence before the Iranian support had arrived,” he said.
Referring to the 18-month-old uprising against Assad’s regime, Jumblatt said: “The Syrian people are daily displaying heroism in the struggle for freedom and dignity, and they do not need lessons, especially since their national history is very honorable in facing occupation and liberating from [foreign] mandate.”
Former President Amin Gemayel saluted Sleiman for summoning the Iranian envoy. “Enough of Lebanon’s territory being violated for regional and other interests to be achieved,” Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb (Phalange) Party, told reporters at his residence in the mountain town of Bikfaya.
“We will not be content with a passing answer. We want a clear answer from the Iranian authorities,” he said.
Future MP Ahmad Fatfat said Jafari’s statement suggested that Lebanon’s decisions on strategic issues were being made out of the country. “The Lebanese can decide on minor matters but on major and strategic issues, we must admit that outside [powers] have an impact on us,” he told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.
He said that Jafari’s statement on the presence of the Quds force’s members in Syria amounted to “an acknowledgement that Tehran is a direct party in the attack on the Arab Spring in Syria in support of President Assad and his regime.”
Fatfat called on Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn to take a stance on Jafari’s statement.
He accused Iranian authorities of trying hard to turn Lebanon into an “advanced base” of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard through Hezbollah’s arms.