Iran responded resentfully to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's statements in late May 2018 regarding the need for all foreign forces to withdraw from Syria – meaning also Iranian forces or those sponsored by Iran, such as Hizbullah and the Shi'ite militias.
Iranian regime spokesmen, from both the pragmatic and ideological camps, rejected the demand, that came from Russia's most pro-Iran representative, Lavrov. They clarified that Iran was in Syria at the permission of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and that therefore Russia's demand was illegitimate. The Iranian Ghanoon daily, which is affiliated with the Iranian reformist stream, openly expressed opposition to reliance on Russia, even mounting a personal attack against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor and associate of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is the most senior political figure in Iran's ideological camp, which has in recent years pushed for cooperating with Russia to counter the pro-West, and particularly pro-U.S., policy promoted by the pragmatist camp, led by Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. He attempted to defend his pro-Russia policy and Russia itself, saying that it had consistently supported Iran's position in the face of the West's pressure on Iran and false promises to it (for more on the rival Iranian camps' choice between a pro-West or a pro-Russia strategy, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1191, Iran At The Crossroads: Between Russia And The U.S., October 13, 2015). Velayati stated that Russia does not want to, and cannot, force a policy on Iran.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesmen were more vehement in their criticism of Russia. After recalling Russia's generally pro-Iran policy, they stated that Russia does not determine Iranian policy, and warned it, albeit not strongly, not to dictate to Iran to pursue Russian interests in Syria.
Below is an analysis of the situation in Syria from an interview with Jahangir Karami, director of a research group on Russia at Tehran University, on the subject, followed by reactions from officials of Iran's pragmatic, reformist, and ideological camps to Russia's demand that all foreign withdraw from Syria.
Director Of Research Group On Russia At Tehran University: Russia Will Not Hesitate To Choose The West Over Iran
The Tasnim news agency, which is close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), interviewed Jahangir Karami, director of a research group on Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus at Tehran University. In the interview, Karami noted Iran's inferiority to Russia in the Syrian arena and the limitations of its power in the global political arena. He discussed Iranian, Russian, and Israeli interests in Syria, and noted that Iran-Russia relations do not constitute a comprehensive military alliance, and that Russia will prefer to join the West, not confront it militarily, and in particular will prioritize Israel's interests over Iran's. He recommended that Iran cooperate with Russia in Syria, rather than confronting it. The following are the main points of the interview:
"Iran-Russia ties are not considered a comprehensive military alliance... Iran expects Russia not to prioritize Israel over Iran. [Iran is aware] that Moscow views Israel in a positive light and has no essential problem with it. Russia views Israel as a player that can significantly benefit it bilaterally, regionally, and internationally...
"[As for Iran], Moscow and Tehran have shared bilateral and international interests, and particularly regional interests, which have reached the point of military and operational cooperation. But as far as the Kremlin is concerned, its ties with Iran come at a heavy price [for instance, the economic punishments levied by the U.S. for dealings with Iran]. Sadly, this has caused Israel, the West, and the Arabs to succeed in casting a shadow on some [aspects of] Iran-Moscow relations...
"Russia had considerable need for Iran at the military phase cementing the status of the Syrian government. But at the next phase, the diplomatic phase, Russia has a greater need for players other than Iran. At this [stage] America, Europe, the Arabs, and even Israel are important. Israel held discussions with the Russians and promised that if Iran and Hizbullah retreated from the Israel-Syria border, Israel would help [promote a political solution in Syria]. The painful truth is that Iran is conspicuously weak when it comes to the diplomatic stage [of seeking a political solution] in Syria, which gives the Russians a more prominent role...
"Israel's objective is to expel Iran from all of Syria, or at least drive it back from the Israel-Syria border. The Russians want all foreign forces out of Syria – Iran, the U.S. and Turkey. Iran has apparently agreed [to withdraw its forces] provided that Syrian forces take their place. Some Iranian political institutions regard this Russian [position] as a betrayal of Iran, although it was clear from the start that along with the agreement between Iran and Russia about combatting terror and maintaining the Syrian regime, there were also disagreements between them on the Syrian issue. At the time, they were silent about this, because cooperation was more essential... The important point is that, sadly, if Russia or any other country [finds itself] at a crossroads, [required to choose] between ties with Iran or with the West, it will not hesitate to choose the West [over Iran]...
"The Russians apparently do not think that an agreement with Israel is necessarily at Iran's expense. They believe they are acting as mediators to prevent confrontation between the two sides in Syria. [As for] Iran-Israel relations, Russia is neutral, [favoring] neither side...
"[Iran] needs to cooperate with Russia on various issues. We cannot have rivalry or hostility with Russia, China, or any other country vis-à-vis their relations with the West or with Israel – because no player, not even Putin's Russia, wants to form a military coalition [with us] against the West..."
Reactions From Iran's Pragmatic And Reformist Circles
Pragmatic Daily Ebtekar: Iran Must Not Allow Itself To Be Depicted As A Player That Destabilizes Syria
In its May 31, 2018 editorial, the pragmatic Ebtekar daily addressed the strategy Iran should adopt vis-à-vis Syria. It concluded: "Iran can cooperate with all sides at the same time. When external regional forces lead an initiative to reduce tensions in Syria, Iran must not allow itself to be depicted as a player undermining stability, and to become a target for American-Western negative propaganda. Perhaps the optimal strategy for Iran right now is to cooperate with all the players in the Syrian arena."
Reformist Daily Ghanoon On Putin: "A Swindling Scoundrel"
On June 3, 2018, the reformist daily Ghanoon published a photo of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with Russian President Putin, captioned "A Swindling Scoundrel" – apparently in reference to Putin.
The caption goes on to say: "The people expect that just as those in charge shout about the excessive demands of America and the West and protest against their support of Israel, the murderer of children, they will also respond to these actions by Russia [i.e. demands that Iran withdraw its forces from Syria] and skillfully implement the principle of 'neither East nor West', [thus] following in the footsteps of the founder of the Islamic Revolution [Ayatollah Khomeini]...
"Russia was not supposed to withdraw its support of Iran in the post-ISIS period and sign a pact of brotherhood with Iran's major enemy, that is, the Zionists – thus trampling the Iranian blood that has been spilled in Syria. It seems that once again, the historic nature of the Russians has been revealed – [their disloyalty and a willingness to again betray [Iran]...
"Russian elements have been speaking for a while now of expelling Iran from certain areas in Syria... [But] Iran has invested efforts in Syria and has paid a price, and it must extend its strategic border as far as it serves its national might. Iran must not allow countries that think only of their own interests to make decisions for it."
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif: Iran Was Invited Into Syria And Iraq By Their Governments
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said at a May 23, 2018 press conference: "With regard to the statements by Putin's representative in the matter of Iran's withdrawing from Syria, it is true that this statement was amended. But I must emphasize the Iranian position on this matter, which was always explicit: Anywhere Iran has a military advisor presence – whether in Iraq, Syria, or anywhere else – [this presence] is at the invitation of that state, and with the aim of fighting terrorism. In effect, Iran is the only country in the region, and in the world, that is fighting terrorism, paying the price for doing so and sacrificing martyrs. Iran arrived at the invitation of the countries of the region – not like other countries, that came without permission. We will continue our aid as long as these countries wish it. I believe that this aid is for the good of the entire world, because the terror groups that we are fighting with threaten the entire world."
IRGC Spokesman Baharam Qassemi: "No One Can Force Iran To Do A Thing... Iran Sets Its Policy According To Its National Interests"
On May 21, 2018, IRGC spokesman Baharam Qassemi told a press conference: "Iran will remain in Syria as long as there is a need [for it to do so], as long as there is a danger of terrorism in Syria, and as long as the Syrian government asks it to continue its aid to Syria.
"With regard to the Russian elements that said that foreign forces must withdraw from Syria, and the question of whether it is possible for Russia to force Iran to exit Syria – I must clarify that no one can force Iran to do a thing. Iran is an independent state that sets its policy according to its national interests in the region and in the world. Iran is present in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government. Our main aim is fighting terrorism and suppressing terrorism in Syria, so that Syria's sovereignty is preserved... Whoever comes to Syria without the permission of its government and violates its sovereignty must be the one to withdraw from Syria."
Reactions From Iran's Ideological Camp
The following are several reactions to Russia's demand from Iran's ideological camp:
Ali Akbar Velayati, Senior Advisor To Khamenei: "Russia Cannot And Also Does Not Want To Force Exaggerated [Demands] On Iran"
Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor to Khamenei, said at a May 30, 2018 conference titled "The Eternal Lesson –Another Look At The Positions Of The Leader in the Matter of the JCPOA": "One of the most important things [with regard to Iran's foreign policy] is turning eastward [i.e. towards Russia and China]. Unfortunately, those afflicted with the Western disease and the fools [i.e. the reformist and pragmatic camps] very much oppose this. Some [of them] say that Russia has broken past promises. They should be asked whether Europe has fulfilled, with its pure intentions, everything we wanted?! Every country operates according to its national interests. In certain places, we have interests with Russia and China, and we can cooperate. The Russians vetoed England's cunning anti-Iran draft resolution regarding Yemen at the UN [Security Council], and without a doubt did so explicitly and swiftly.
"After America withdrew from the JCPOA, Putin met with [French President Emmanuel] Macron, and at this meeting Macron talked a lot and said that the JCPOA should be complemented by [other agreements] on the missile issue and on [Iran's expansion] in the region. But Putin told him explicitly that the missiles and the region[al expansion] were completely unconnected to the JCPOA. Who of the Westerners are willing to do something like Putin did? ...
"Russia cannot and also does not want to force exaggerated [demands] on Iran. We have defense cooperation with Russia, and Russia gave us almost everything we wanted. The reactor that the Russians built was meant to be built by the Germans, but they left after the  revolution and never made the smallest move [to compensate us]. But the Russians built the reactor, and gave us things for which the Europeans would not give us a single bolt.
"At the height of the sanctions, China cooperated with us, and the volume of our commerce reached $52 billion... Many years ago, at a meeting with China's president, the leader [Khamenei] spoke about a [political] turn eastward, and reminded us that we want strategic relations with China; [China] also noted this point. The Chinese want to work in the oil fields in the south, at Pars and Bazargan. Therefore, turning eastward is the easiest way to be rid of the game of hide and seek with the West. We must not be influenced by the propaganda of those afflicted by the West and who love Paris more than Moscow."
Hossein Sheikh Al-Islam, Advisor To Iranian Foreign Minister: "Russia Must Not Interfere In Syria's Internal Affairs"
Former Iranian ambassador to Syria Hossein Sheikh Al-Islam, who is currently an advisor to Foreign Minister Zarif, said on June 3, 2018: "We all know that the Syrian government is the official government elected by the parliament. We are there in accordance with an official invitation by the Syrian government, [and our presence there] is compatible with all the international laws and the UN Charter. It is the Syrian government – and no other government – that determines who will be there and who will not. Therefore, as long as the Syrian government and Iran want it, the work of the [Iranian] military advisor will continue. It is clear that both we and Russia want those who came to Syria on other pretexts to leave it...
"Russia must not interfere in Syria's internal affairs. Only the Syrian government, and no one else, has the authority to determine who remains and who will not. We must note that [Syrian] Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad stressed, after Russia's statements, that Iranian forces and Hizbullah are in Syria at our [Syria's] request, and their presence will continue...
"In any event, Russia has a decisive role to play in stabilizing Syria, and this began seven years ago, with the first resolutions initiated by the West in the UN in the matter of [Iran's] intervention in Syria's affairs – which Russia vetoed three times. [Russia's] air force helped the Syrian government where necessary, and this was because the Syrian government's air force was not precise, and unfortunately, when it carried out bombing, some civilians were mistakenly harmed. The Russian government, alongside Iran, helped the Syrian government and army, and did not allow Syria to disintegrate.
"Russia played an active role in fighting terrorism, because of its interests; many of the terror elements came to Syria from regions in southern Russia, and were trained, and then returned to Russia to carry out [terror] operations. Russia came to Syria, undoubtedly, because of its own national and regional interests, and not for us. In some places, we succeeded in precisely defining joint interests with Russia and with the Syrian government, including [the interests of] destroying terror and preserving Syria's unity stability and the region's security – and we cooperated in these issues. If we again have joint interests, we will again collaborate. The Assad regime and the Syrian government will decide whether to have closer [relations] with Russia or with Iran – I am not deciding for them.
"Make no mistake, we have not sacrificed martyrs in Syria in order to now grab money [at their expense]. We sacrificed martyrs to protect Iran's security. This does not mean that we will have no role in rebuilding Syria. Previously, we played a very large role in the Syrian economy. If you've ever been to Damascus, you've seen that most of the taxis there [were made in Iran]. Once, we had a prominent role in the Syrian economy, and this role will continue. The Western Satan wants to provoke us and prevent our beneficial presence in Syria, so it is spreading false rumors. You must know that Iranian companies have won more than 50% of Syrian electricity and water tenders. We built there a refinery and a silo [sic]. Ten silos were built during my term as ambassador to Syria. We have there companies for assembling [Iranian] Faraed and Samand cars. We provide technical and engineering services for many projects for building roads and so on. All these will continue. It is not like after all this we will leave Syria and return [to Iran], because the Syrians will not leave us."
Gen. Kosari, Deputy Commander Of IRGC's Tharollah Command In Tehran: If Russia "Wants To Stand [Against Us], We Will Surely Stand Against It"
Gen. Ismail Kosari, deputy commander of the IRGC's Tharollah Command in Tehran, said on May 22, 2018: "I believe that Russia has not stood against us in any matter, but if it wants to stand [against us], we will surely stand against it – like we did against the USSR."
IRGC-Affiliated Kayhan Daily: Israel And Russia Do Not Decide About Withdrawal Of Iranian And Hizbullah Forces From Syria
In its June 11, 2018 editorial, the IRGC-affiliated Iranian daily Kayhan, which reflects the views of Iran's ideological circles, opposed the withdrawal of Iranian forces and of Hizbullah from Syria. It stated that Russia cannot decide for Iran on this issue:
"Iran's military advisors, and Hizbullah forces, did not come to Syria with Israel's or Russia's approval, and therefore the [latter] cannot decide now about withdrawing them... It is inconceivable that there should be any deal between any of the sides involved in Syria with regard to the Iranian presence and the role of Hizbullah. This is because the policy of the resistance axis is clear and independent, and insists on non-reliance on other powers. Secret negotiations [between Russia and Israel] cannot influence this principled policy. Furthermore, no side can decide on Iran's policy and role in the region..."
 Tasnim (Iran), June 5, 2018.
 Ebtekar (Iran), May 31, 2018.
 "Neither East nor West" was a revolutionary principle of Islamic Revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – that is, not to be identified as either an American or a Russian satellite.
 Ghanoon (Iran), June 3, 2018.
 ISNA (Iran), May 23, 2018.
 ISNA (Iran), May 21, 2018.
 Tasnim (Iran), May 30, 2018.
 Majlis website (Iran), June 3, 2018.
 ILNA (Iran), May 22, 2018.
 Kayhan (Iran), June 11, 2018.