WASHINGTON (JTA) — A condition of U.S. cooperation with Russia in the Syria arena is the removal of Iranian forces from the country, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
“The direct presence of Iranian military forces inside of Syria, they must leave and go home, whether those are Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces or whether those are paid militias, foreign fighters, that Iran has brought into Syria in this battle,” Tillerson said Wednesday in a wide-ranging news conference.
The other condition, Tillerson said, was that the end result should be a unified Syria with “new leadership” — the removal of the Assad regime.
Israel expressed concerns last month at the terms of a proposed cease-fire in the civil war in southern Syria in part because it left Iranian forces in place. Israel’s deadliest enemies in the region are Iran and its Lebanese ally, the Hezbollah militia, and it wants them removed from Syria as part of any endgame.
It’s not clear whether President Donald Trump was on board with Tillerson’s conditions. Particularly on Iran policy, Tillerson has advanced one position — for instance, preserving the nuclear deal with Iran — only to be contradicted by Trump within hours.
Perhaps wary because of these experiences, Tillerson declined to say whether the Trump administration would continue to back the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. Trump has said that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the agreement by engaging in activities, including testing missiles and military adventurism in the region, not covered by the agreement.
“What does that mean if we say the spirit of the agreement’s been violated?” Tillerson asked.
“Do we want to tear it up and walk away? Do we want to make the point to Iran that we expect you to get back in line with the spirit of the agreement and we’re going to stay here and hold you accountable to it?” he said. “There are a lot of – I think there are a lot of alternative means with which we use the agreement to advance our policies and the relationship with Iran. And that’s what the conversation generally is around with the president as well, is what are all those options.”