On February 13, 2013, Mehdi Taeb, the head of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's Ammar Base think tank and the brother of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence bureau director Hossein Taeb, delivered a speech at a Basij conference in Mashhad, Iran, on Syria's importance to the Iranian regime.
In his speech, he defined Syria as a strategic Iranian province, and said that preserving the existence of the Syrian regime was even more important to the Iranian regime than preserving the oil-rich southern Iranian province of Khuzestan – despite the latter's strategic and economic importance.
Taeb also stressed that if Iran's enemies were to attack both Syria and Khuzestan, Tehran would prefer to preserve Syria, since its loss would lead to the loss of Tehran itself. He added that that Iran had helped to establish a 60,000-man Basij force in Syria which is fighting the rebels alongside the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Reviewing regional and superregional threats to Tehran, Taeb assessed that right now, Israel – not the U.S. – constitutes the only serious threat. Tehran, he says, is successfully hobbling Israel by means of Hizbullah, and added that the U.S. will never attack Iran because it lacks the military manpower to do so, and also because of its shaky economy.
Mehdi Taeb's speech on Snn.ir.
Taeb's view of Syria's strategic importance to the Iranian regime was earlier expressed by Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, on February 8, 2013: "Iran has planned its defensive positions outside its own borders, and has linked its fate to the fate of the Islamic countries; this is why it will support those such as [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad to the end..."
Taeb's statements triggered harsh criticism from conservative and reformist circles alike; they claimed that he is harming Iranian sovereignty with his willingness to relinquish precious parts of the homeland and that his statements support the Arab claim that Khuzestan is not part of Iran. They also said that his statements support the claim by enemies of Iran that the Iranian regime is oppressing its own citizens at home using the Basij, and that the statements confirm claims that Iran is now supporting the oppression of civilians in Syria.
In response to the criticism, Taeb said in three separate interviews with Iranian media that his statements had been distorted, but did not retract them: "The foreign media and the anti-[Iranian] regime media are helpless to deal with the Iranian regime, and therefore they distort statements made by Iranians... Iran's position regarding the developments in Syria is completely clear, and my statement was a political and strategic analysis."
Following are excerpts from Taeb's statements on Syria's strategic importance to Iran:
Syria – A "Strategic Province" Of Iran
"Syria is [Iran's] 35th province, and it is a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take Syria or Khuzestan, our top priority will be to preserve Syria. By preserving Syria, we will be able to retake Khuzestan – but if we lose Syria, we will not be able to preserve Tehran...
"Syria has an army, but it cannot wage the war within Syria's cities. This is why Iran proposed establishing a Basij force, to conduct the fighting in the cities. [So] the 60,000-strong 'Syrian Basij' was established; it has taken over the fighting in the streets from the army..."
"It Is Only Israel That Wants To Destroy [Iran], Because We Have Said From The Outset That We Do Not Want Israel To Exist"
"Today, there is only one threat to us, and that is the Zionist regime. It has the motivation and the capability to attack [Iran], and there is nothing preventing it from doing so. None of our neighboring countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia – has either the money or the [military] strength [to attack us]; thus, we are not facing any regional threat.
"[However,] in the superregional arena, we see the U.S. as an enemy that would like to attack us but has neither the funds nor the [military] strength to do so... and it has no manpower to wage a war.
"To examine the economic state of a particular country, we must look at its budget proposal... During the Romney-Obama presidential debates, Romney told [Obama]: 'You have ruined the American economy, and amassed $16 trillion in debt – and Iran is now using this economic situation as a club to beat us with.' Obama responded, 'This debt is not my fault, but rather the fault of the American system...'
"During [the November 2012 Gaza conflict], the U.S. was in the Mediterranean, but did not come to [Israel's] aid. This is because if even one [Gaza] rocket had hit one of its warships, the wages of that ship's crew would have automatically doubled. [The U.S.] will never initiate a war against us.
"It is only Israel that wants to destroy us, because we have said from the outset that we do not want Israel to exist. Israel has as many nuclear warheads as we do provinces and towns; if they attack us, they will be accountable to no one in the world.
"[As to why we have not targeted Israel's nuclear warheads] – this is because we have completely locked up [Israel] with Hizbullah. During the 2006 Lebanon war, the Zionist regime tried to break this lock [i.e. Hizbullah], but after 33 days [of fighting], it gave up, and left [Lebanon]. According to [Hizbullah secretary-general] Hassan Nasrallah, Israel has said that in that war, it used 100% of its capability, while [Hizbullah] used only 4% of its capability."
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Criticism Of Mehdi Taeb's Statements
Khuzestan - The Heart Of Iran – Is Much More Important Than Syria
Shokre Khoda Moussavi, the Majlis delegate from the city of Ahvaz, said: "Khuzestan to Iran is like the heart to the body – and one should not ignore the heart... Undoubtedly, while mercenaries and mercenary circles raise the issue of nationalism in regions like Khuzestan, the name of Khuzestan must not be raised, in order to support Syria...
"For the Iranian people and for Khuzestan, preserving Iran [with] Khuzestan is much more important than preserving Syria."
Taeb Serves The Arab Claim For Sovereignty Over Khuzestan And Encourages The Division Of Iran
An article on the website Baztab titled "We Will Not Replace Khuzestan – Not Even With Damascus" claimed that Taeb had disregarded his statements' possible ramifications "for the sensitive province of Khuzestan" following "the [Support for the Ahwazi People] conference held in Cairo, which was held in an attempt to divide Iran."
Maintaining that Taeb's statements "are likely to play into the hands of extremist circles in Arab countries, who in recent decades have claimed sovereignty over Arab parts [of Iran]," the article went on to state that Taeb "speaks lightly of the possibility of war, while [Iran] is mobilizing all its capabilities to ease international pressure and to lessen the direct and indirect impact of the sanctions."
It continued: "He reduced the [Basij's] rank to [waging] war in the cities, and failed to explain where in Iran this kind of warfare has been used – and now he is recommending that Assad's regime use it... The [story] that Iranian Basij forces are being used [in Syria] is a baseless rumor disseminated by anti-[Iranian] regime media...
"The survival of the anti-Zionist regime in Syria is an Iranian strategic principle, because it is [part of] the resistance at the forefront of the battle against the Zionists' expansionist aspirations. No military, diplomatic, or strategic official would ever recommend losing even a single inch of Iran's territory. This is a sensitive issue – and even bringing it up, even if only to underline its importance, encourages division."
Taeb Strengthens Iran's Enemies, Who Claim That Iran, Not Assad, Is Running Syria
The Iranian website Asr-e Iran accused Taeb of "violating [Iran's] national security and territorial integrity" and of fomenting "separatism." It explained that Taeb "disregarded the [Iranian] blood that has been shed to preserve this precious province [Khuzestan]."
The website noted that Taeb's statements "do not help the Syrian regime, but rather weaken its status against its opponents at home... who tell the Syrian people that Bashar Assad is a lackey and an agent of Iran – and Taeb's statements [prove] this. [Assad's opponents in Syria say that] Assad has turned Syria into an Iranian province, and that the sooner we [i.e. Syrians] get rid of the evil of this regime, which is identified with foreigners, the better...
"Taeb's statements only whitewash the armed rebels in Syria, who are identified with foreigners, and transforms them from foreign mercenaries into Syrian freedom fighters from Iran, or into fighters aiming to liberate the [Syrian] homeland from foreign rule.
"Yesterday, exiled Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab told Al-Arabiya TV that Syria was occupied by Iran and that it is run not by Assad but by Qassem Suleimani, commander of the [IRGC] Qods Force. Don't Taeb's statements strengthen these anti-Iran claims?
"To the best of our knowledge, Iran has 31 official provinces. Where Taeb got 34 provinces, and added Syria as a 35th, we have no idea. Maybe he counted other countries such as Bahrain, Lebanon, and Iraq as Iranian provinces about which we know nothing?"
Taeb Was Mistaken And Did Not Explain What He Really Meant
An article in the Iranian daily Kayhan, which is close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, claimed that "[Taeb's] mistaken statements about prioritizing Syria over Khuzestan were exploited by the anti-[Iranian] regime media... [Taeb] did not explain exactly what [part of] his statements had been distorted, or what he'd actually meant [to say].
"It is not necessary to demonstrate [the principle of] defending the resistance axis in Syria as opposed to [the principle of] defending the territorial integrity of Khuzestan or any other Iranian province. Syria is not an Iranian province, but it is an important and strategic member of the anti-Israel resistance axis...
"It is expected that people be more precise in their words – particularly in professional matters. Sometimes, when they make a mistaken statement, or if their words are [later] twisted, they need to correct them in a timely manner."
Taeb Is Serving Arab Claims Of Sovereignty Over Khuzestan
The Iranian website Kaleme, which is close to supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, claimed that Taeb had "ignored the ramifications of his statements for international relation [apparently referring to Iran's relations with its Arab neighbors], and for the national and security sensitivity [of Khuzestan]."
On another occasion, the website noted that "the political and media pressure on [Taeb] made him blame others, instead of apologizing and correcting his position."
The Ahvazis Respond: Ahvaz Will Be Free; Taeb's Statements Prove Iran's Involvement In The Slaughter of The Syrian People
In response to Taeb's statements, a separatist Ahvazi website noted: "With these statements, the Persian regime officials have clearly proven that Ahvaz has not always been under Iranian rule – and that right now, occupied Ahvaz is not part of Iran. The regime knows this, and knows that Ahvaz will win its independence."
The website of the Ahvazi Democratic Popular Front added: "With his statements, [Taeb] has underlined Iran's direct occupation [of Syria] and Iran's involvement in forming the Basij in Syria... These statements prove Iran's direct involvement in the slaughter of the Syrian people, from the first day of the[ir] Intifada."
*Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 Snn.ir, February 13, 2013.
 Yjc.ir, February 8, 2013.
 Fars (Iran), February 15, 2013; Tasnim.com, February 16, 2013.
 Snn.ir, February 16, 2013.
 Snn.ir, February 13, 2013.
 Behar (Iran), February 16, 2013.
 Baztab.net, February 14, 2013.
 Asr-e Iran (Iran), February 16, 2013.
 Kayhan (Iran), February 17, 2013.
 Kaleme (Iran), February 14, 2013.
 Kaleme (Iran), February 16, 2013.
 Ahwazna.org, February 16, 2013.
 Alahwaz.org, February 15, 2013.