Iran says it has no plans to pull out of Syria
Top official meets Russian president in Moscow amid mounting US and Israeli pressure for Tehran's exit
Iran has no intention of leaving Syria regardless of US and Israeli pressure, a senior envoy of Iran's supreme leader said on Friday, reaffirming a tough stance on the issue expected to top the agenda of the upcoming US-Russia summit.
The statement from Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, came in the wake of his meeting in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin. A day earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Mr Putin that Israel wants Iran to leave Syria.
The high-level talks precede Monday's summit in Helsinki between Mr Putin and US President Donald Trump, who are set to discuss the Iranian presence in Syria.
Both the US and Israel want Iran to pull out of Syria, while Russia has warned it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country.
A possible deal could see Syrian troops replacing Iranian forces and its proxy Hezbollah militia in the areas near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Mr Velayati reaffirmed Iran's firm intention to maintain its presence in Syria, but skirted a question about a possible pullback from the border, saying only that Tehran would not bow to US and Israeli coercion.
"We co-ordinate the Iranian presence in Syria with Russia and Syria," Mr Velayati said during a meeting at Moscow's Valdai Club discussion platform. "We will be present there the way we consider necessary. Sometimes we will play our role in Syria open-handed, sometimes we will do it with our hands hidden."
While Mr Velayati maintained a combative tone, his careful response reflected the intense diplomatic manoeuvring ahead of the Helsinki summit.
He expressed scepticism about the outcome of the meeting, repeating tough criticism of the US and saying he did not expect Mr Trump to make any positive contribution to stabilising the Middle East.
Mr Velayati argued that Iran along with Russia helped stem fighting in Syria and prevented the country from falling to ISIS and other militants.
"We have come there without the Americans' permission and we won't heed their demands to leave," he said.
He also strongly warned Russia against listening to the US arguments about the Iranian presence in Syria.
"I told the Russian officials: Now the Americans are telling you that the Iranians must leave Syria and tomorrow they will ask you what you are doing in Syria," he said. "They are trying to split our alliance."
Mr Velayati's remarks came as Israel's military said it had fired a Patriot missile at an unmanned aircraft that approached the country's border from Syria for the second time this week.
On Wednesday, a drone travelled about 10 kilometres inside Israeli territory before it was shot down. The military targeted Syrian military positions on Thursday in response.
Last month, Israel fired a missile at a drone that approached its airspace near the Syrian frontier, and in February Israel shot down what it said was an Iranian drone that entered its airspace. It bombed Iranian targets in Syria in response.
Updated: July 13, 2018 06:02 PM