Syria’s Foreign Minister meets Iran’s National Security Council Secretary on February 5, 2019 in Tehran.

Syria’s Foreign Minister meets Iran’s National Security Council Secretary on February 5, 2019 in Tehran. (Tasnim)

Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani, who also serves as the Supreme Leader’s representative, met last week with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who was visiting Tehran. Shamkhani termed the continued Israeli attacks against the Syrian army “resistance forces,” and Syrian sovereignty as “unacceptable.”  The Syrian foreign minister met earlier with his counterpart M. Javad Zarif.

“A Crushing Blow”

Shamkhani warned that in the event Israel’s attacks continue, Iran has already planned a series of appropriate measures designed to prevent Israel from attacking again and would “hit Israel in return a crushing blow and teach the criminal and lying Zionist regime a memorable lesson.”

The senior Iranian official dismissed reports of Iranian casualties during the last Israeli attack on “Iranian targets” “in Syria.

Shamkhani expressed Iran’s readiness to participate in reconstruction projects in Syria and said that restoring stability and security to Syria represents an opportunity for development and assistance to the Syrian nation who suffered during the war. He said Iran would not hesitate to assist and advise Syria to rehabilitate the country in the same way that it helped the Syrian government fight against terrorism.

The Syrian foreign minister responded, “The presence of Iranian military advisers in Syria is at the request of Syria’s government and is intended to assist the Syrian army in the war against terrorism, (and) Syria has the obligation to provide security for the Iranian forces acting in its boundaries.”

Iranian Aid to Syria “Is Taken out of the Throats of the Iranian People”

Walid Muallem arrived in Iran less than a week after a visit to Syria by a senior Iranian delegation led by Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, several government ministers, and Abdolnasser Hemati, the governor of Iran’s Central Bank. Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, Chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iranian Parliament (Majlis), also visited Syria with two Majlis members and met with President Bashar Assad and the prime minister.

During his visit to Syria and upon his return to Iran, Falahatpisheh leveled criticism over the treatment Iran receives from Syria, particularly over its disregard for paying its many debts to Iran. He complained that Iranian aid given to the Syrian government during the war was funds pulled “out of the throats of the Iranian people,” and Syria must pay back these funds in the form of preferential treatment to Iranian companies bidding on rehabilitation projects in Syria.

Falahatpisheh also recently revealed impatience with Russian military operations in Syria and the “abandonment” of Iranian forces. Falahatpisheh stated after Israel’s recent attack that Russia did not activate the anti-aircraft S-300 defense system during the raids.  This incident, he said, comes from “apparent coordination between Russia and Israel.”

Amid tensions with Russia as a result of Falahatpisheh’s remarks, Iranian spokespersons explained that the parliamentary official was only expressing his own opinion and not that of the Iranian regime. It should be noted that Iran also criticized an interview given by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Alexeyevich Ryabkov to CNN on January 26, 2019, in which he expressed Russia’s commitment to Israel’s security and said the Iran-Russia relationship cannot be categorized as strategic allies.

Senior Russian Delegation Visits Iran

Against the backdrop of this activity and discussions for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis, a Russian inter-ministerial delegation arrived in Tehran on February 2, 2019. The group was led by senior Russian Special Envoy of President Putin for Syria affairs, Alexander Lavrentyev, and included the deputy foreign minister, Sergey Vershinin, (who visited Israel at the end of January), as well as representatives from the Department of Defense. The Russian delegation met with Shamkhani and Hossein Jaberi Ansari, a senior advisor to the Iranian foreign minister for political affairs and Iran’s representative at the Astana talks to resolve the Syrian crisis.3

The Russian delegation in Tehran.

The Russian delegation in Tehran.

The talks focused on settling the crisis in Syria and the upcoming trilateral summit (Russia-Turkey-Iran) in Astana, as well as various issues related to the Middle East.4The Iranian Foreign Minister and Jaberi Ansari also met in this regard with UN Special Envoy for Syrian Affairs Geir Pedersen, who made his first visit to Iran after his appointment in January.5

The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Turkey are scheduled to meet in Sochi on February 14, 2019, to discuss the situation in Syria and especially the withdrawal of American forces and the situation in Idlib.

Iran’s Rhetoric Escalates

Shamkhani’s comments on Iran’s possible response in the face of more attacks by the Israeli Air Force in Syria continues the escalating rhetoric of senior Iranian officials (including the commander of the Revolutionary Guard – IRGC) since the January 20 raid on the IRGC Al-Quds Force in the area of Damascus. So far, Tehran retaliated with a medium-range ground-to-ground missile launched toward Mount Hermon, but it seems that Iran is primed to respond to Israeli air force attacks by taking greater risks than in the past. Iran’s senior officials’ statements suggest more willingness to test the red lines with Israel.6

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Revolution (February 11), Iran has revealed that it has a long-range cruise missile and long- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Israel from Iranian territory.7 Whatever the case, Iran has a variety of missiles and rockets in Syria and Lebanon, and it appears Iran has an inclination to use them for retaliation. The days leading up to Revolution Day (February 11) and Revolution Day itself may be an opportunity for Iran to retaliate against Israel.

Ongoing Israeli airstrikes in Syria have also caused tensions in the Iran-Russia relationship. There is also evident scurrying along the Tehran-Damascus-Moscow axis with regard to a possible political arrangement and preparations for the day after the crisis is resolved (rehabilitation, military presence). However, tension has also surfaced from the increased squeaking coming from the axis and the mutual recriminations heard from both sides more often in recent weeks.