Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has denied Israeli charges that his country has been seeking to entrench itself militarily in Syria.
Responding to a reporter’s question on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, he claimed: “No, we do not have them [in Syria],” The Times of Israel reported.
While Zarif did acknowledge that Iran does send military advisers to Syria, he maintained that no Iranian combat soldiers have been deployed there.
The Iranian minister’s comments contradict months of Israeli warnings against allowing Iran to gain a foothold in Syria. In November, Israel backed up its charges with satellite photos that appeared to confirm a BBC report that Iran was building a permanent military base in Syria, just 31 miles from Israel’s northern border.
On Monday, Ali Alfoneh, a researcher at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council think-tank, was quoted by The New York Times as saying that Iran currently has 10 military bases in Syria and is training militias loyal to President Bashar Assad’s regime for a possible conflict with Israel,
As many as 20,000 fighters from various militias active in the country have been trained by Iranian military personnel, giving Tehran its “true muscle” in Syria, according to the report. The Iranians were said to number in the hundreds, if not thousands.
After neutralizing most of the threat posed by the Sunni Islamic State terror group, militias aligned with Assad are now turning their attention to the Israeli front, according to Alfoneh.
Of the 10 Iranian military bases he says are in Syria, two are located south of Damascus, near the border with Israel.
“Iran has realized that it is actually possible to maintain a front against Israel where there is no war, but also no peace,” Alfoneh was quoted as saying.
At the same Munich conference earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu displayed a fragment from the Iranian drone that penetrated Israeli airspace last week, triggering the most serious military clash between Israel and Syria in many years. He charged that Tehran had “brazenly violated Israel’s sovereignty” in the incident.
In Munich, PM Netanyahu turned to Zarif, who was also in attendance, and said, “Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? You should, it’s yours. You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran — do not test Israel’s resolve!”
Meanwhile on Monday, Russia issued a rare rebuke of Iran.
At a panel discussion in Moscow attended by Zarif, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly criticized Tehran for its threats to destroy Israel.
“We have stated many times that we won’t accept the statements that Israel, as a Zionist state, should be destroyed and wiped off the map. I believe this is an absolutely wrong way to advance one’s own interests,” Lavrov said in Moscow at the Valdai International Discussion Club conference entitled “Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields,” according to The Jerusalem Post.
Asked about Zarif’s reaction, another participant, Dore Gold, currently head of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs said the Iranian diplomat just smiled, adding that, “he is very good at smiling.”
Lavrov tempered the remark, though, with a veiled criticism of Israel: “By the same token, we oppose attempts to view any regional problem through the prism of fighting Iran.”
The two-day conference was attended by representatives of Mideast think-tanks including Gold and Amos Yadlin, who heads the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Gold, a former director-general of the foreign ministry, characterized Lavrov’s rebuke of Iran as significant, “because it is blatant criticism by the foreign minister of Russia of their Iranian ally.”
Zarif, for his part, accused Israel of violating Syrian sovereignty.
“Israel has violated Syrian sovereignty. So for the first time in 36 years, Syrian defense forces managed to bring down an Israeli plane. Is this a catastrophe? Is this a strategic complication, or is the fact that Israel violated the airspace of a sovereign state a strategic catastrophe?” Zarif asked.
He continued: “Israel has to put a stop to its aggression. Don’t look for excuses, such as drones. We need to stop this aggression, and if anyone takes such an action against another country, it is possible to react.”