The planned deployment of NATO Patriot missiles along Turkey's border with Syria could lead to a "world war," Iran's military chief of staff was quoted as saying on Saturday.
Turkey asked NATO for the Patriot system, designed to intercept aircraft or missiles, in November to help bolster its border security after repeated episodes of gunfire from war-torn Syria spilling into Turkish territory.
General Hassan Firouzabadi, the Iranian armed forces chief, said Iran wanted its neighbor Turkey to feel secure but called for NATO not to deploy the Patriots in its easternmost member state, which also borders Iran.
"Each one of these Patriots is a black mark on the world map, and is meant to cause a world war," Firouzabadi said, according to the Iranian Students' News Agency. "They are making plans for a world war, and this is very dangerous for the future of humanity and for the future of Europe itself."
Iran has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout the 21-month uprising against his rule and long a strategic adversary of Western powers who have given formal recognition to Syria's opposition coalition.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order on Friday to send two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey along with American personnel to operate them, following similar steps by Germany and the Netherlands.
Iranian officials including parliament speaker Ali Larijani have previously said that installing the Patriot missiles would deepen instability in the Middle East, and the foreign ministry spokesman said they would only worsen the conflict in Syria.
Turkey has repeatedly scrambled jets along its border with Syria and responded in kind when shells and gunfire from the Syrian conflict have hit its territory, fanning fears that the civil war could inflame the wider region.
'Scuds fired by Syria land near Turkey'
NATO on Friday accused Assad's forces of firing Scud missiles that landed near to the Turkish border, in explaining why it was sending anti-missile batteries and troops to the bloc's frontier.
Admiral James Stavridis, the American who is NATO's military commander, wrote in a blog: "Over the past few days, a handful of Scud missiles were launched inside Syria, directed by the regime against opposition targets. Several landed fairly close to the Turkish border, which is very worrisome."
It was not clear how close they came. NATO member Turkey, once friendly toward Assad but now among the main allies of the rebels, has complained of occasional bullets and artillery fire, some of which has been fatal, for many months. It sought the installation of missile defenses on its border some weeks ago.
"Syria is clearly a chaotic and dangerous situation; but we have an absolute obligation to defend the borders of the alliance from any threat emanating from that troubled state," Stavridis wrote.
Batteries of US-made Patriot missiles, designed to shoot down the likes of the Scuds popularly associated with Iraq's wars under Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, are about to be deployed by the US, German and Dutch armies, each of which is sending up to 400 troops to operate and protect the rocket systems.
The Syrian government has accused Western powers of backing what it portrays as a Sunni Islamist "terrorist" attack on it and says Washington and Europe have publicly voiced concerns of late that Assad's forces might resort to chemical weapons solely as a pretext for preparing a possible military intervention.
In contrast to NATO's air campaign in support of Libya's successful revolt last year against Muammar Gaddafi, Western powers have fought shy of intervention in Syria. They have cited the greater size and ethnic and religious complexity of a major Arab state at the heart of the Middle East - but have also lacked UN approval due to Russia's support for Assad.
Moscow reacted angrily on Friday to the way US officials seized on comments by a top Kremlin envoy for the Middle East as evidence that Russia was giving up on Assad. Comments by Mikhail Bogdanov on Thursday in which he conceded Assad might be ousted did not reflect a change in policy, the Foreign Ministry said.
Assad's diplomatic isolation remains acute, however, as Arab and Western powers this week recognized a new, united coalition of opposition groups as Syria's legitimate leadership. Large parts of the country are no longer under the government's control and fighting has been raging around Damascus itself.
European Union leaders who met in Brussels on Friday said all options were on the table to support the Syrian opposition, raising the possibility that non-lethal military equipment or even arms could eventually be supplied.
In their strongest statement of support for the Syrian opposition since the uprising began 20 months ago, EU leaders instructed their foreign ministers to assess all possibilities to increase the pressure on Assad.
With rebels edging into the capital, a senior NATO official said that Assad is likely to fall and the Western military alliance should make plans to protect against the threat of his chemical arsenal falling into the wrong hands.