PHOTO: Supreme Leader’s top aide Ali Akbar Velayati meets a Syrian delegation on Tuesday


Iran’s officials scrambled on Tuesday to cope with the surprise announcement by President Vladimir Putin of a withdrawal of “most” Russian forces from Syria.

Russia and Iran have been the essential backers of the Assad regime during Syria’s five-year conflict, and the two countries have furthered the political and military co-operation amid the growing opposition-rebel challenge. Last July, Moscow and Tehran agreed on a combination of Russia’s bombing and ground offensives to check the rebel advance and prevent Assad’s collapse.

However, Iran appeared to have no advance notice of Putin’s sudden declaration of a pullback from the 5 1/2-month campaign of bombing and Iranian-led ground attacks.

In Tehran, the Supreme Leader’s top aide, Ali Akbar Velayati, played down Moscow’s announcement after a meeting with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Feisal al-Mikdad on Tuesday:

The reduction of Russian forces in Syria will not change the overall cooperation among Iran, Russia, Syria, and allied forces like Lebanese Hezbollah….

[Russia] may reduce its air force…[but] the Russians are participating in the crucial battle against the terrorists, and they will intensify this fight wherever it is necessary. This is something we have heard from senior Russian officials, including Mr. Putin himself.

Velayati preferred a proclamation of triumph rather than an evaluation of the near-future: “Although a lot of damage has been inflicted on Syria, this country stood up against these serious acts of aggression which constitute a mini-world war and emerged victorious.”

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also indicated Tehran’s surprise, but searched for optimism in the development:

The fact that Russia announced that it is withdrawing part of its forces indicates that it doesn’t see an imminent and impending need to resort to the military option in order to maintain the ceasefire….That in and of itself could be a positive sign. We have to wait and see.

Before Putin’s announcement, there had been days of Iranian proclamations — from the Revolutionary Guards to President Rouhani — upholding the necessity of Iran’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Since October 7, Iranian media have confirmed the deaths of 208 commanders and troops in Syria amid Tehran’s leading role in the ground offensives. A significant but unknown number of Iranian-led Iraqi, Pakistani, and Afghan militia have also been killed.

Supreme Leader Issues Another Warning About Challenge to His Position

The Supreme Leader has issued another warning about any challenge to his position, following the surprise victories of a centrist-reformist bloc in February 26 elections.

Ayatollah Khamenei told a leading religious center in the Islamic Republic, no Tuesday: “Due to the outstanding and unique role of the Qom Seminary in the Islamic Revolution, motives and plans to ‘de-revolutionize’ the Qom Seminary now exist.”

Khamenei said the plans are a “danger” which must be confronted with “wise thought and planning”.

Conservatives suffered unexpected defeats in the contests for the Assembly of Experts, the body which chooses the Supreme Leader, with Assembly chair Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi among those losing their positions.

The development raises the possibility that centrist former President Hashemi Rafsanjani could regain the chair, which he held from 2007 to 2011. Rafsanjani has proposed that a fixed-term Leadership Council replace Ayatollah Khamenei after his death.

Khamenei told the Seminary students on Tuesday: “Sometimes…practices explicitly oppose the revolution; other times, they indirectly oppose the foundations and principles of revolutionary dogma, which is the reason for… repeated emphasis on the need for vigilance in the face of the arrogance and America.”