Sunday's news conference of General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, was wide-ranging. He was the first senior regime official to criticise the attacks in Benghazi that killed the US Ambassador to Libya, and he ventured into domestic matters with the declaration that the Guards would crack down on illegal currency trading.
However, it was Jafari's remarks on Syria that were bound to take the headlines, as the commander confirmed that members of the Quds Force, the elite unit of the Guards, were in Damascus to give advisory support to the Assad regime.
The statement in itself was far from shocking. At least two senior military figures had already said, albeit without confirmation from the regime, that the Quds Forces was present inside the country. What is significant is the timing --- why would the top man in the Guards now confirm what those hostile to Iran have been alleging for months?
Far from bolstering Iran, apart from any reassurance to President Assad, Jafari may have damaged the Islamic Republic's diplomatic position. The Iranian line has been that foreign intervention is destabilising Syria and preventing a resolution; it is hard to see how Tehran --- despite Jafari's assurance that the Quds Force had no operational role in Syria --- can avoid the response of double standards.
On Sunday, State media was pushing the story that President Ahmadinejad, in a phone call with his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari had called for a contact group "to contact both sides in order to guide issues toward establishment of tranquility, peace and understanding”. Press TV added the context: "The Syrian government says the chaos is being orchestrated from outside and accuses certain Western and regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, of arming and funding insurgents operating in the country."
There is already a new "contact group" --- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran --- which met for the first time in Cairo last week. The President's statement appears to be a public call for that group to be more than a token gathering, having some influence on the current mission of United Nations-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to Damascus.
It is hard to see how that is going to happen with the complication of Jafari's statements. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to be pleased --- given the accusation that their interventions are the culprits in the conflict --- and Egypt, which is being courted by the Islamic Republic as an ally on regional matters, will be wary.
And, just to muddle Iran's approach further, State media on Sunday were also pushing the line, "Turkey Allowing Terrorists to Cross into Syria, Damascus Says":
The Syrian foreign ministry says Turkey has opened its borders and airports for Syria-bound terrorists, calling it a flagrant violation of the international law. The ministry made the remarks on Sunday in two letters addressed to the UN Security Council and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Syrian news agency Sana reported.
The ministry said Syria’s northern neighbor allowed "thousands of al-Qaeda, Takfiri, and Wahhabi terrorists" to cross the border in order to "kill innocent Syrians, blow up their properties, and spread chaos and destruction."
Jafari's message on Sunday, backed by this chiding of Ankara, appears to be, "We are in Syria. Deal with it." Perhaps someone in Tehran planned it as part of a carrot-and-stick strategy, with the commander offering the tough posture while the President was saying, "Look, you really want us in talks."
More likely, however, is that there is no strategist --- not Jafari, not Ahmadinejad, not the Foreign Ministry, not the Supreme Leader --- thinking through the statements and Iran's actions. And that failure is likely to set Iran back in its effort to retain some influence in the Syrian situation.