Iran not wanting Assad to stay in power forever: deputy minister

October 25, 2015

Iran has boosted the number of military advisers it has sent to Syria where it is determined to help defeat “terrorism”, a senior official has confirmed, while saying that Iran does not Bashar al-Assad “to stay in power forever as president”.

In an interview with the Guardian during a visit to London, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said there was “no [Iranian] fighting force, as such,” on the ground. But he said advisers were helping the Syrian army.

Amir-Abdollahian lashed out at Saudi Arabia, Iran’s longstanding regional rival and a leading supporter of anti-Assad groups, saying that its “radical policies” had encouraged the growth of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

“The fight against terrorism in Syria has intensified and Russia has taken effective steps to fight Daesh [ISIS],” said Amir-Abdollahian. “We have decided to increase the number of our military advisers in Syria to help the fight against terrorists. The number of officers and advisers is not important. What is important is an unwavering will to fight against terrorism.”

He said numbers were “commensurate with our capabilities and the requests made by the Syrian government. If need be we will provide the same advisory services to our Russian friends.”

Iran has long sought to keep a low profile in Syria but that may be changing after General Qasim Suleimani, commander of the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, was photographed last week addressing unidentified fighters near the coastal city of Latakia.

Amir-Abdollahian dismissed the scenario, related by diplomats, that Iran had urged Russia to intervene directly because it feared Assad was in danger of falling after admitting losing territory and men. “We believe that armed groups even in the most demanding times were not able and will not be able to topple the Syrian government,” he said.

A fluent Arabic speaker, Iran’s deputy minister for the Middle East and Africa is seen by experts as being more hardline than his boss, Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, who led negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Amir-Abdollahian dismissed a statement this week by the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Jubeir, that Syria was “occupied Iranian territory”, retorting that the Saudis were occupying Yemen.

“Considering the fact that for seven months Saudi Arabia has been attempting to occupy Yemen using force, when it comes to Syria they are not in a position to make such comments,” he said. “I recommend that [Jubeir] instead of passing the buck considers cooperation and constructive behavior in the region.”

He said Saudi “mismanagement” was responsible for the deaths of large numbers of pilgrims, including nearly 500 Iranians, in the hajj disaster last month.

Amir-Abdollahian said he had held constructive talks in Brussels with Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, on proposals to advance a political solution in Syria. Tehran’s relations with European countries are now closer than with a more suspicious U.S. in the wake of July’s landmark nuclear agreement.

Amir-Abdollahian is the most senior Iranian official to have visited the UK in a decade, weeks after embassies in both capitals were reopened following a four-year closure.

UN officials have said they would like Iran to be part of an international “contact group” to deal with the Syrian crisis. It is not currently part of any international forum handling it. But unlike other candidates it does not subscribe to the 2012 Geneva conference principle of working for a “Syrian-led political transition” that could lead to Assad stepping down.

“In any political process the role played by Bashar al-Assad will be important,” Amir-Abdollahian said. “We are not working for Assad to stay in power forever as president. But we are very cognisant of his role in the fight against terrorism and the national unity of that country. The people of Syria will make the final decision – and whatever decision they take, we will endorse.”

Speaking on background, a senior Iranian official was scathing about Saudi Arabia’s political system as well as that of its neighbor and ally Bahrain, another member of the nine-strong Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy rules over a Shia majority, regularly accuses Tehran of interfering in its internal affairs.

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Hossein Amir-Abdollahian with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in September. Photograph: A