Senior Russian official stands by Tehran’s claim that US drone was shot down in Iranian airspace, defends rights of foreign troops to remain in Syria despite Israeli opposition
Russia’s top national security adviser spoke out on behalf of Iran during trilateral meetings with his Israeli and American counterparts in Jerusalem on Tuesday, backing Tehran’s claims against the United States and supporting its ongoing military presence in Syria, which Israel sees as a threat to its security.
The trilateral conference of Israeli, Russian, and US national security advisers is the first event of its kind to be held in Jerusalem and, according to Israel, is aimed specifically at countering Iran, including both its nuclear aspirations and its influence throughout the Middle East.
The meeting comes amid escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, following US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal last year and put in place a series of crushing economic sanctions. The Islamic Republic has retaliated by stepping up its uranium enrichment to levels beyond those permitted under the 2015 accord, allegedly carrying out a number of attacks on petroleum facilities around the Middle East, and shooting down a sophisticated US drone last week.
Russia, which maintains close ties to both Israel and Iran, is seen as a potential interlocutor between the West and Tehran. But comments made by its representative at the summit, security adviser Nikolai Patrushev, indicated that Moscow was siding with the Islamic Republic.
In press conferences on Tuesday, Patrushev rejected the view held by the US and Israel that Iran represents “the main threat to regional security” and said Israeli airstrikes in Syria against Iranian forces and its proxies were “undesirable.”
Commenting on the downing of a US drone by Iran last week, Patrushev said the Russian Defense Ministry had determined that the aircraft had entered Iranian airspace, as Tehran claims. The US maintains that the drone was flying in international airspace when it was downed.
“We have not seen any proof otherwise,” Patrushev said.
Patrushev also lauded Iran’s ongoing presence in Syria — which Israel sees as an unacceptable threat. The Russian official said Iran was “contributing a lot to fighting terrorists on Syrian soil and stabilizing the situation there.”
He said Moscow was aware of Israel’s concerns regarding Iran’s military presence in Syria and was working to address the issue with Tehran.
“We pay special attention to ensuring Israel’s security,” he said, calling it “a special interest of ours because here in Israel live a little less than about two million of our countrymen. Israel supports us in several channels, including at the UN. The prime minister [Netanyahu] has already said that we share the same views on the issue of the struggle against falsifying the history of World War II.”
According to a Central Bureau of Statistics report in 2016, as of five years ago, there were 985,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union living in Israel.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton, seen as a longtime hawk on Iranian issues, threatened Tuesday that the White House would step up the sanctions and other measures against Iran if it exceeded the uranium enrichment levels of the nuclear deal, saying such a move would be a “very serious mistake” by Tehran.
Tehran had announced on May 8 that it was suspending two of its 2015 pledges and gave Europe, China and Russia a two-month ultimatum to help Iran circumvent US sanctions and sell its oil or it would abandon two more commitments. Bolton spoke a day after the US imposed fresh sanctions against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“They’ll either get the point or as the president said, we will enhance the maximum pressure campaign further,” he said at a press conference, adding that “all options are on the table.”
In his press conference, Bolton disputed Patrushev’s positive view of Iranian troops in Syria, saying he did not believe this was the true stance of Russia and that Moscow also hopes to see Tehran’s forces and proxies leave Syria.
“The Russians have said repeatedly that they would like to see Iranian forces leave,” he said, citing comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in a recent meeting in Moscow.
Bolton said that despite this desire, Russia has thus far been unable to achieve this goal but that with the summit in Jerusalem the three countries were working to “find a way to make it happen.”
Israel has long sought Russian backing for its demand that Iranian forces leave Syria upon the conclusion of the country’s civil war.
Earlier this year, the Israeli military said the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group had established a new base of operations in southern Syria along the border with Israel.
Earlier in the day, Bolton said that Trump, while imposing “significant new sanctions” on Iranian leaders on Monday, “has held the door open to real negotiations to completely and verifiably eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program, its pursuit of ballistic missile delivery systems, its support for international terrorism, and its other malign behavior worldwide.
“All that Iran needs to do is to walk through that open door,” he said.
In his press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Bolton stressed that the White House was not seeking regime change in the Islamic Republic. “That’s not the policy of the United States,” he said, acknowledging that as a private citizen he had called for this in the past.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said that new US sanctions against senior Iranian officials including top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif showed Washington was “lying” about offering to negotiate.
Agencies contributed to this report.