A top advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei defended Iran’s costly involvement in regional conflicts and called for a long-term military presence in Syria and Iraq, Fars News Agency reported. “Our forces must stay in Iraq and Syria so as to defend Islamic unity. This is because if Iran is not present, no country can be the standard-bearer and guarantor of stability in the region,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who holds more than a dozen official positions in the Islamic Republic. “It was planned to divide Syria. And ultimately they had the same design for Iran. They also pursued this in Iraq and wanted to separate Kurdistan from the central government of Iraq. Indeed, had it not been because of Iran’s support, Iraq would be been divided,” he stressed during his speech at an event entitled “The liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque through the victory of the resistance front.”  In a response to a question as to why Iran supports Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Velayati said: “The policy of Iran is to prioritize prevention to cure. It fights in Iraq and Syria so that their theory of dividing these countries are not exported to Iran. If we do not extend our defense outside the borders, and if the Kurdistan region gained independence, we would have witnessed the presence of Israeli forces in our borders.” 

The senior Iranian official also questioned the presence of US military presence in the Persian Gulf and emphasized that Iran will help the Syrian government to fight American troops stationed in the Arab country, including in Raqqa. “The imperialists were defeated in Syria. But we should not be neglectful, and if we remain silent, we would witness the same scenario in our own country. The situation in West Asia – in Syria Lebanon and Palestine – is critical. And if we are careless for a day, we will lag behind for a year.” 

Comment: There are two key takeaways from Velayati’s remarks.  First, despite the military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Iran will not end its military presence in both countries anytime soon. Last month, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that Tehran will keep its military footprint in Syria for the long haul. “Based on the request of the legitimate government of Syria, we will continue our presence and advisory assistance until all terrorist groups in this country are destroyed,” he said. “And claims by the Zionist regime or other countries will also have no effect on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s calculations and decisions in pursuing its national interests and regional security,” he added.  

Second, with ISIS collapsing, Tehran and Damascus will focus their attention to drive out American troops still stationed in Syria helping opposition groups to prevent the reemergence of ISIS in the country. Iranian leaders and Tehran’s proxies have recently dialed up anti-American propaganda and warn that a “direct confrontation” with the U.S. will be necessary if Washington decides to keep its troops in Syria. Velayati last month said that that pro-Syrian regime forces will soon take action to capture the city of Raqqa, also cautioning that the U.S. is seeking to divide Syria by positioning its forces east of the Euphrates River.