Sunday, September 16, 2012

Iran Acknowledges Elite Troops In Syria

By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Michael Peel in Abu Dhabi

Brigadier General Mohammad-Ali Jafari

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards are helping the Syrian government, the force’s head said on Sunday, but he refused to be drawn on whether Iran would intervene militarily to help Damascus in the event of foreign military intervention.

In the first official acknowledgment of an Iranian troop presence on the ground in Syria, Brigadier General Mohammad-Ali Jafari said the guards were not involved militarily in the 18-month conflict but were “giving intellectual and advisory help and exchanging experiences” with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Gen Jafari’s remarks came in a rare international press conference in which he said US bases would be targeted and “nothing would remain” of Israel should Israel attack Iran – the most explicit threats yet made by a senior Iranian official.

Gen Jafari said members of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas forces, known as the Qods, were in Syria as well as Lebanon. Gen Jafari said Iran did not give military support to the Assad regime, as “Arab and non-Arab countries” did to Syrian opposition groups, but instead provided advice and gave “other assistance in economic fields” to help defend the government in Damascus.

“Since the establishment of the Qods forces . . . due to the special conditions in the region, in Lebanon and in Syria, some members have been present, but this does not mean a military presence there,” the general said.

With regards to a military agreement signed between Syria and Iran in 2006 – and widely believed to cover the possibility of intervention to protect Damascus in the case of attack – he said: “This agreement will depend on the circumstances. It is not clear [now] that if there is a military strike against Syria, Iran will act militarily or will provide military support [to the Syrian government],” he said.

The Syrian regime is one of Tehran’s main regional allies, with the Damascus regime dominated by members of the Alawite religious minority, an offshoot of the Shia Islam followed by most Iranians. Tehran is also close to the radical Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah.

There have long been reports of an Iranian troop presence on the ground in Syria, although this has never before been confirmed in Tehran. There is significant foreign involvement in the Syria crisis: the regime is heavily armed with Russian weapons, while the militarised rebel groups that appeared in response to a brutal government crackdown are backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Western nations have also been supporting the opposition.

On Israel, Gen Jafari issued a riposte to elements of the Israeli government that have been arguing for military action against Tehran over its nuclear programme. “It is clear that nothing would remain of Israel [if it attacks Iran], considering its small size and numerous vulnerabilities vis a vis Iran’s mass of missiles,” he said.

He added that, since Israel was “too small to dare attack Iran on its own”, any attack on Iran would need permission from Washington and thus make the US a target for retaliation. He acknowledged that the US had strong military capabilities in the region, but said its bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were “highly vulnerable” and its regional defence system could counter some but not “the mass” of Iran’s missiles.

The general said that, in the event of a military confrontation with Israel, it was “unlikely” that Iran would remain committed to international nuclear non-proliferation agreements. But he added that Iran would still choose not to produce nuclear weapons as this was against religious teachings.

Despite tough international sanctions by the US and the EU, Iran has repeatedly said it will not scale back its nuclear programme, which it says is aimed at generating electricity, not developing weapons.

Amid aggressive rhetoric from some parts of the Israeli government about military action against Iran, the US has reiterated there is still time for diplomacy and has opposed any unilateral military strike.

This week, the US and more than two dozen allies plan to hold the largest naval exercise yet in the Middle East, in an exercise designed to ensure that the strategic Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran remains secure.

Gen Jafari played down the importance of the manoeuvre and warned that “in case of any incident [Israeli war], they [US] surely cannot establish security in the region or the Strait of Hormuz” and stressed that any attack against Iran would “naturally affect the energy supply” through the strategic waterway.

The general also hinted that an attack against Iran could increase the chances of terrorist attacks on Israel and the US.

Any military confrontation, he said, would be a “conflict between Islam and heresy” which would encourage “Muslims around the world and not only in the region” to defend Iran. He reminded Israel that it neighbours Muslim states such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

“Naturally, if there is any act against Iran, the response to threats would begin from the very same borders [of Israel],” he said. Hizbollah would “surely not remain silent” and “most probably will on its own move” to help Iran, he said.

-This article was published in The Financial Times on 16/09/2012

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