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Iran will keep military presence in Syria despite US pressure, says official

While Israel and the US press for an Iranian exit, Tehran says continued presence in Syria part of cooperation agreement with Assad
Members of Iran's Basij militia march in this year's army day parade in Tehran (AFP)

Iran will maintain its military presence in Syria despite US pressure for its withdrawal, a senior Iranian official said on Tuesday, revealing more details about a military cooperation deal that Tehran and Damascus signed this week.

Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami visited Damascus on Saturday for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and senior military officials. He signed a deal for military cooperation in a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, but details of the accord were not revealed.

"The continued presence of Iranian (military) advisers in Syria was part of this military cooperation agreement between Tehran and Damascus," the state news agency IRNA quoted Tehran's military attache to Damascus, Abolqassem Alinejad, as saying.

"Iran will help Syria in clearing minefields in different parts of the country... Iran will help Syria to rebuild the military factories that were damaged in the war," Alinejad said.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have sent weapons and thousands of soldiers to Syria to help shore up Assad during the seven-year-long civil war there.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton reiterated last week Washington's call for Iran to remove all its forces from Syria.

Bolton said that last month in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin had told US President Donald Trump that he would be content to see all Iranian forces return to their country.

“It was not a question of where they might be inside Syria. We were talking about a complete return of both the regular and irregular Iranian forces," he said.

The US has reimposed economic sanctions against Iran partly over its involvement in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen as well as over its nuclear and missile programmes.

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Israel has also long called for Iran to withdraw from its neighbour Syria. The Israeli air force has carried out scores of air strikes against Iran's allies there.

"The pact between Syria and Iran for rehabilitating the Assad army is an excuse and a facade meant to grant legitimacy to the Iranian forces remaining in the area," Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Ynet TV on Tuesday.

"But as far as we are concerned, no machinations keeping the Iranians in the area will be acceptable."

A senior Israeli official said in an anonymous statement to reporters that Israel's military "will continue to act with full determination against attempts by Iran to transfer military forces and weapons systems to Syria".

Iran has repeatedly said its military presence in Syria is at the invitation of the Assad government and that it has no immediate plans to withdraw. More than 1,000 Iranians, including senior members of the elite Revolutionary Guards, have been killed in Syria since 2012.