BEIRUT -- Issuing Tehran's strongest warning to date, a top Iranian official said Saturday that any attack on Syria would be deemed an attack on Iran, a sign that it will do all it can to protect embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made his comments as Syrian troops conducted offensive air raids against rebels and discovered a trio of tunnels they were using to smuggle weapons in their fight to topple Mr. Assad.
The world has been grappling over how to deal with Syria ever since an uprising against Mr. Assad's regime erupted nearly two years ago. But so far, there has been no international intervention on the ground where more than 60,000 people have been killed, according to the U.N.
Iran is Syria's strongest ally in the Middle East, and has provided Mr. Assad's government with military and political backing for years. In September, the top commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said the elite unit had high-level advisers in Syria. Iran also is believed to be sending weapons and money to Syria as it endures its worst crisis in decades.
"Syria plays a very key role in supporting or, God forbid, destabilizing the resistance front," Mr. Velayati was quoted by Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency as saying. "For this same reason, [an] attack on Syria is considered [an] attack on Iran and Iran's allies."
By backing the rebels trying to oust the Syrian leader, the U.S. and Arab states in the Persian Gulf attacked the "golden ring of resistance," Mr. Velayati said, referring to the militant groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iran and Syria, which are all anti-American.
Iran also is at odds with the international community over its nuclear program, although Iran insists it is using the program solely for peaceful purposes, not nuclear weapons.
A former Iranian diplomat who defected to the West in 2010 told Israel's channel 2 TV in an interview broadcast on Friday that if Tehran acquired nuclear weapons, it would use them against Israel.
Mohammad Reza Heydari, who has political asylum in Norway, claimed that Venezuela was flying uranium and various components for nuclear weapons to Tehran. Venezuela backs Iran in arguing the nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.
Since the unrest in Syria began in March 2011, opposition forces have taken control of wide swaths of territory, mostly in the north near Syria's border with Turkey.
NATO said Saturday that the first of six Patriot missile batteries being deployed to Turkey to shoot down missiles that might come from the Syrian side of the border was now operational. The battery, meant to protect the Turkish city of Adana, was provided by the Netherlands.
The United States, Germany and the Netherlands are providing two batteries each of the U.S.-made Patriots.world