Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir attends at the Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting at the request of Saudi Arabia, in Cairo, Egypt, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Arab League Denounces Iran, Hezbollah


In a Sunday meeting in Cairo, Arab League leaders denounced Iran and Hezbollah, although there have yet to be any actions to back up their statements.

Leaders criticized Iran for creating turmoil in the Middle East, specifically citing their backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war, and condemned Hezbollah as a terror organization.

“Iranian threats have exceeded all boundaries and are pushing the region toward the abyss,” said Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

Aboul Gheit also pointed out that “Iran is aiming to control many of the Arab capitals.”

Adel Al-Jubeir, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, noted at the meeting that the Houthi rebels have fired missiles at the Gulf Kingdom 80 times since 2015.

“Showing leniency toward Iran will not leave any Arab capital safe from those ballistic missiles,” said Al-Jubeir. “We are obliged today to take a serious and honest stand… to counter these belligerent policies.”

Additionally, Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, the foreign minister of Bahrain, stated, “We want to hold countries where Hezbollah is a partner in government responsible, specifically Lebanon,” adding that the “terror group” is controlling Lebanon.

Al-Khalifa also stated that Bahrain would need to rely on Western allies if the Arab League didn’t take any action against Iran. The league didn’t take any action against Iran or Hezbollah despite their criticisms of them.

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, claimed that the Arab League’s condemnation of them stemmed from “countries like the Saudi regime are pursuing divisions and creating differences.”

Lebanese President Michael Aoun defended Hezbollah as acting in self-defense from Israel.

The Arab League meeting comes amid escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Gulf Kingdom has even accused Iran of committing an act of war against them.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud poses for a photo with National Guard Minister Khaled bin Ayyaf and Economy Minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri during a swearing-in ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 6, 2017. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Saudi Arabia: Iran and Lebanon Committed ‘Act of War’ Against Us


Saudi Arabia has accused Iran and Lebanon of committing an “act of war” against the Gulf Kingdom after a missile heading toward Riyadh was intercepted on Saturday.

The missile was aimed at Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Airport, but ended up being harmless after the Gulf Kingdom shot it down. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, a faction supported by Iran in Yemen’s civil war, claimed responsibility for the missile.

“Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps,” Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel Jubair told CNN.

Thamer al-Sabhan, the Gulf Kingdom’s Persian Gulf Affairs Minister, told a state news outlet that they’re considering the failed missile strike as Lebanon declaring war on the Gulf Kingdom.

“Lebanon is kidnapped by the militias of Hezbollah and behind it is Iran,” said al-Sabhan.

He did not elaborate on any action that Saudi Arabia plans to take against Lebanon, but he warned Lebanon that they “must all know these risks and work to fix matters before they reach the point of no return.”

Iran is denying the accusations, claiming that the Houthis acted on their own. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed Saudi Arabia for the death and destruction occurring in Yemen.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced on Saturday that he was stepping down, a move that shocked even his aides. Hariri claimed his resignation was due to Hezbollah plans to assassinate him; Hezbollah is accusing Saudi Arabia of strong-arming Hariri into his resignation.

Hezbollah is broke thanks to US sanctions, says White House official


Non-nuclear U.S. sanctions against Iran and its allies have led to Hezbollah being in “its worst financial shape in decades,” the top sanctions enforcement official told Congress.

“After many years of sanctions targeting Hezbollah, today the group is in its worst financial shape in decades,” Adam Szubin, the acting Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence told the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “And I can assure you that, alongside our international partners, we are working hard to put them out of business.”

Szubin described sanctions introduced in recent months to further isolate Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia that in 2006 fought a war against Israel and that Israeli intelligence believes has tens of thousands of missiles in place for the next war.

The House committee asked Szubin and two other top officials handling the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal to testify. Congressional Republicans and a number of Democrats have expressed concerns about reports that the U.S. is going out of its way to accommodate Iran in the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal.

Stephen Mull, the top U.S. official charged with implementing the deal, acknowledged that the United States was making it clear to third parties that some sanctions are no longer in place.

“In an effort to provide greater clarity to the public and private sectors on what sanctions were lifted and what non-nuclear sanctions remain in place, the Departments of State and Treasury have been participating in extensive outreach with the public and private sectors, mostly at the request of other governments, in order to explain U.S. commitments,” he said.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the committee, lacerated the sanctions officials for what he said was “the length the Obama administration has gone to accommodate Iran.”

“The administration told us that sanctions on Iran’s terrorism, human rights and ballistic missiles would be fully enforced after the agreement,” he said. “Yet, it now says that non-nuclear sanctions would undermine the Iran agreement. The White House’s Iran policy amounts to walking on eggshells.”

Szubin rejected the claim. “We have not lifted any of our sanctions designed to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities outside the nuclear file,” he said. “These sanctions are not just words on paper. We are vigorously enforcing them.”

Szubin also rejected reports that the Obama administration is contemplating implementing a system to allow Iran to trade in dollars. He outlined a number of areas where the United States is blocking Iranian non-nuclear activities that are otherwise subject to sanction, including its backing for Hezbollah, Iran’s chief proxy in the civil war in Syria.

Thomas Countryman, an assistant secretary of state, revealed that the U.S. assisted Israel in intercepting a Panamanian flagged vessel in the Red Sea that was bearing Iranian weapons. Previous reports on the March 2014 interception by the Israel Defense Forces did not mention U.S. involvement.

Countryman also discounted claims that the U.S. was not doing enough to keep Iran from testing ballistic missiles.

“Our policy on Iran’s ballistic missile program has not changed – Iran must cease this work, including ballistic missile launches,” he said.

Iran says blacklisting Hezbollah may jeopardize Lebanon’s stability


Iran accused Gulf Arab neighbors on Thursday of jeopardizing Lebanon's stability by blacklisting the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, state television said, a move likely to stoke tensions in the regional power rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh.

The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) branded Hezbollah a terrorist organization on Wednesday, opening up the possibility of further sanctions against the group that wields influence in Lebanon and fights in Syria.

Leading Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Muslim Iran compete for influence across the region and back different factions in sectarian-riven Lebanon and in Syria's civil war.

“Lebanon's Hezbollah is the vanguard of resistance against the Zionist regime (Israel) and Iran is proud of the group, which is also the champion of the fight against terrorism in the Middle East,” Iranian state TV quoted deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian as saying.

“Calling Hezbollah a terrorist group … will harm the unity and security of Lebanon.”

Hezbollah's leader said on Tuesday Lebanon had been pushed into a new phase of political conflict by Saudi Arabia but was not on the brink of civil war and its government of national unity, of which Hezbollah is a part, should survive.

In 2013, the Sunni-dominated GCC – representing Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar – imposed sanctions on Shi'ite Hezbollah after it entered Syria's war in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

The GCC did not specify on Wednesday what action might be taken against Hezbollah. But last week Saudi Arabia, the biggest power in the GCC, said it had blacklisted four companies and three Lebanese men for having links to the group.

Relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have been plunged into crisis since Riyadh halted $3 billion in aid to the Lebanese army – a response to the Beirut government's failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

In January, Riyadh led several Arab countries in cutting diplomatic ties with Tehran after demonstrators burned its embassy and a consulate in protest against the execution of a prominent, dissident Shi'ite cleric by Riyadh.

Israel says Arrow 3 missile shield aces test, hitting target in space


Israel's upgraded Arrow ballistic missile shield passed a full interception test on Thursday, hitting a target in space meant to simulate the trajectory of the long-range weapons held by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the Defense Ministry said.

The success was a boost for “Arrow 3,” among Israeli missile defense systems that get extensive U.S. funding. Its first attempt at a full trial, held a year ago, was aborted due to what designers said was a faulty deployment of the target.

“The success of the Arrow 3 system today … is an important step towards one of the most important projects for Israel and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) becoming operational,” said Joseph Weiss, IAI's chief executive officer.

Arrow 3 interceptors are designed to fly beyond the earth's atmosphere, where their warheads detach to become 'kamikaze' satellites, or “kill vehicles”, that track and slam into the targets. Such high-altitude shoot-downs are meant to safely destroy incoming nuclear, biological or chemical missiles.

The Arrow system is jointly developed by state-owned IAI and U.S. firm Boeing Co. <BA.N> and U.S. officials were present for the test. The earlier Arrow 2 was deployed more than a decade ago and officials put its success rate in trials at around 90 percent.

The United States has its own system for intercepting ballistic missiles in space, Aegis, but a senior Israeli official played down any comparison with Arrow 3.

While it “might be true” that the allies were alone in having such proven capabilities, “Israel is not on the level of the U.S.,” Yair Ramati, head of anti-missile systems at the Defense Ministry, told reporters.

Arrow serves as the top tier of an integrated Israeli shield built up to withstand various potential missile or rocket salvoes. The bottom tier is the already deployed short-range Iron Dome interceptor, while a system called David's Sling, due to be fielded next year, will shoot down mid-range missiles. 

Israel's strategic outlook has shifted in recent months, given the international deal in July curbing Iran's nuclear program, the depletion of the Syrian army's arsenal in that country's civil war and Hezbollah's reinforcement of Damascus against the rebels. Israel and Hamas fought a Gaza war in 2014 but the Palestinian enclave has been relatively quiet since.

Nonethless, a senior Israeli official said there was no sign of waning government support or weakening U.S. backing for the various missile defense programs.

“Everyone knows that you have to prepare with an eye well beyond the horizon, especially as the enemy's capabilities improve all the time,” the senior official told Reuters.

In the coming months the Defense Ministry and Israeli military will discuss a possible schedule for deployment of Arrow 3, Ramati said, adding that further tests of the system were expected.

Israel says 90 pct of Syria’s ballistic missiles used up on rebels


Syria has used up more than 90 percent of its ballistic missiles against rebels during a more than four-year-old civil war but a few were transferred to Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon, a senior Israeli military officer said on Wednesday. 

Israel, which is expanding its high-altitude Arrow air defence system with U.S. help, has been keeping an eye on Syria's Scud-type missiles as well as Iran's long-range Shehabs as potential threats. 

“The number of (Syrian) ballistic missiles left is less than 10 percent,” a senior Israeli officer told Reuters on condition of anonmity, but added: “That could still change. They could start making them again.” 

Syrian opposition activists say Damascus' army has fired dozens of devastating Scud-type missiles at rebel-held areas, out of a ballistic arsenal believed to have numbered in the hundreds before the insurgency erupted in 2011. 

Israel had a stable standoff with Syria's ruling Assad family for decades. It sees little chance of the now fractured Arab neighbour going to war with it now, but is still on guard for any accidental cross-border launches or deliberate attacks by jihadi rebels.

The Israelis are more worried about Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fought their superior military to a standstill in a 2006 Lebanon war and has been building up its arsenal.

Hezbollah now has more than 100,000 rockets, including “around 10” advanced Scud-D missiles with conventional warheads supplied by Syria, the senior Israeli military officer said. 

Hezbollah does not comment publicly on its military capabilities but has confirmed improving them since 2006.

Obama in landmark interview: Hezbollah will be a focus of post-Iran deal


A focus of security enhancement once the Iran nuclear deal goes through will be neutralizing Hezbollah’s threat to Israel, President Barack Obama said in a landmark interview with The Forward.

“As soon as this debate is over, we will, I think, be able to invigorate what has been an ongoing conversation with the Israelis about how we can do even more to enhance the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation that we have with them, and to see, are there additional capabilities that Israel may be able to use to prevent Hezbollah, for example, from getting missiles,” Obama said in the interview published Monday — the first with the Jewish media since he became president.

“Where Iran has been effective in its destabilizing activities, it’s not because it’s had a lot of money,” Obama said, countering criticism that the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal that will unfreeze $50 billion in funds will increase Iran’s capacity for disruption.

“It’s because they’ve effectively used proxies; it’s because they’ve invested in places like Lebanon for decades and become entrenched,” the president said. “And the reason we haven’t done a better job of stopping that is not because they’re outspending us. The reason is, is because we haven’t been as coordinated, had as good intelligence and been as systematic in pushing back as we need to be.”

Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militia, has stockpiled tens of thousands of missiles on Lebanese territory since its 2006 war with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vigorously opposes the Iran nuclear deal, has rejected Obama administration efforts to coordinate post-deal defense strategies regarding Iran, preferring to wait until he is certain that Congress will not reject the deal.

Republicans mostly oppose the deal, so there has been a concerted effort by both sides to win over Democrats, in part by appeals to the Jewish community, a key constituency of the party. Congress has until late September to consider whether to reject the deal reached July 14 between Iran and six major powers.

Obama spoke on Friday, the same day he gave the Forward the interview, to a webcast jointly sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“This deal blocks every way, every pathway Iran might take to obtain a nuclear weapon,” said Obama during the 50-minute webcast, which was filmed live from the White House. “We’re not giving away anything in this deal in terms of our capacity to respond if they chose to cheat.”

In additions to concerns about how Iran will spend its unfrozen funds, Netanyahu and other opponents, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, say the expiration dates for some of the deal’s components, in 10, 15 and 25 years, will leave Iran a nuclear threshold state.

In his Forward interview, Obama said that tensions between the Israeli and U.S. governments surrounding the deal would not last.

“People will look back and say as long as we implemented it with care and precision that it was the right thing to do,” he said. “The one thing I do want to make sure is that your readers and everybody who cares about the U.S.-Israeli relationship retain the understanding that I think is one of the foundations of this relationship, which is, is that this is not a partisan issue; the bipartisan support of Israel is critical to a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship.”

After Israel talks, Pentagon chief says: ‘Friends can disagree’


U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter never expected to win over Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the merits of the nuclear agreement with Iran but tried to put a brave face on their sometimes blunt, closed-door exchange on Tuesday.

“We don't agree on everything. And the prime minister made it quite clear that he disagreed with us on with respect to the nuclear deal,” Carter said at an airbase in Jordan.

“But friends can disagree.”

Since arriving in Israel on Sunday, Carter has sought to look beyond the political tensions between Israel and the United States that have only deepened since last week's announcement of a deal curbing Iran's nuclear program.

Carter, the first U.S. cabinet secretary to visit Israel since the deal, traveled to the northern border with Lebanon on Monday and promised to help counter Iranian proxies like Hezbollah.

Israel fears Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah will benefit from Iranian sanctions relief.

Netanyahu looked stern as he received Carter in Jerusalem and the two did not deliver expected public remarks to gathered reporters. Once behind closed doors, the prime minister, without referring to notes, detailed his objections.

“The Secretary did of course respond to those (objections) … we just agreed to disagree on certain issues,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the talks.

The official described Netanyahu as “blunt” and “passionate,” offering the same kinds of arguments privately that he has made at length in public. In his latest U.S. media offensive, Netanyahu has urged lawmakers to hold out for a better deal.

The U.S. Congress has 60 days from Monday to decide whether to approve or reject the deal. Republicans who control Congress have lined up in opposition, but Obama says he will veto any attempt to block it.

Israel has a strong army, is believed to have the region's only nuclear arsenal, and receives about $3 billion a year in military-related support from the United States.

That amount is expected to increase following the Iran deal, but the U.S. official said that issue did not come up.

“There was no discussion of money at all,” the official said.

Carter visited Jordan on Tuesday and will travel next to Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a contest for power with Iran stretching across the region. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia fears the deal will bolster Iran's allies.

Middle East prepares for Iran nuclear deal


This story originally appeared at The Media Line.

The signing of the framework agreement to end Iran’s nuclear program is having repercussions throughout the Middle East. In Israel, itself a nuclear power, there is deep skepticism that Iran will comply with the terms of the agreement, and concern that it could provoke a nuclear arms race. In Saudi Arabia, Iran’s traditional rival, there is fear that Iran could become a more important player in the Middle East. In Yemen, there is growing conflict between Iran and other Arab states.

The agreement has exacerbated tensions between Israel and the US, already high after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s March speech to Congress detailing the dangers of an Iran deal. Since the agreement was announced, Netanyahu has hit hard, giving numerous interviews detailing why the agreement with Iran is a bad deal, and saying that does not have to remove one centrifuge, according to the framework agreement.

Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the deal was a “historic mistake” and an “existential issue” for Israel.

“It’s not that we don’t believe the White House,” the defense minister said in an interview with Channel 2 on the framework agreement. “We don’t believe the Iranians.”

The Obama Administration has hit back hard in a series of interviews. Netanyahu “said that Israel would not dismantle any of its centrifuges, but under the JCPA (acronym for the framework deal) Iran will physically remove about 13,000 centrifuges from where they stand today in Iran’s nuclear facilities.” In addition, President Obama said that he is confident that sanctions against Iran could be re-imposed if Iran violates the agreement.

He also said that the deal keeps Iran at least a year away from a “breakout capacity,” the time it would take to manufacture a nuclear weapon. But he conceded that when the agreement ran out, Iran could quickly build a bomb.

“What is a more relevant fear would be that in Year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero,” Obama said.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told Israel Television that a US military option remains on the table if Tehran violates the terms of the agreement. But Israeli officials and some analysts are far from convinced.

“There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical,” Emily Landau, the head of the arms control program at the National Institute for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University told The Media Line. “The narrative around the deal says that Iran will freeze and roll back its nuclear program, but in fact it will continue to move forward and continue research. How anyone can say this is a good deal I really don’t know.”

She said there are discrepancies over important issues such as how much access inspectors will have, and how quickly sanctions will be lifted. There is also concern that just as Iran will be subject to inspection, there could be demands for Israel’s nuclear program to be open to inspectors. Israel has long maintained a policy of “nuclear ambiguity”, not officially confirming its nuclear capacity, although foreign reports have said that Israel has up to 200 nuclear bombs.

Landau says there are a lot of holes in the framework agreement, and the US and Iran are offering different versions of the deal. For example, Iran says that all economic sanctions will be lifted as soon as the final deal is sigend, while the White House said the pace of sanctions relief has yet to be negotiated.

Just as concerned as Israel is Saudi Arabia, Iran’s traditional rival in the Middle East.

“The Iran deal is launching a political race not an arms race,” Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut told The Media Line. “Saudi Arabia is trying to assert itself in the face of Iran so that Riyadh can have greater weight when Iran is accepted back into the international community. The Saudi attack on the Houthis in Yemen is an example of this.”

Saudi Arabia has launched dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who had been on the verge of taking over large swaths of the country.

Unlike Israeli analysts however, Khatib believes that Iran will adhere to the terms of any eventual deal.

“By accepting the framework agreement, Iran has raised expectations among its citizens, who are looking forward to the lifting of sanctions so that Iran's economy can recover,” Khatib said. “Iran's leaders cannot risk domestic unrest were the deal to fall apart, so it is unlikely that Iran will continue nuclear enrichment outside of the terms of the agreement.”

Hezbollah says Iran nuclear agreement ‘rules out specter of regional war’


The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah said on Monday that a framework nuclear agreement that Iran reached with world powers last week rules out the specter of regional war.

“There is no doubt that the Iranian nuclear deal will be big and important to the region,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview with Syria's al-Ikhbariya television.

“The agreement, God willing, rules out the specter of regional war and world war,” he said.

The tentative accord, struck on Thursday after eight days of talks in Switzerland, clears the way for a settlement to allay Western fears that Iran could build an atomic bomb, with economic sanctions on Tehran being lifted in return.

Nasrallah said the accord would prevent conflict as “the Israeli enemy was always threatening to bomb Iranian facilities and that bombing would definitely lead to a regional war.”

The Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah was founded with Iranian help in the 1980s to fight Israel in Lebanon. It has grown into a powerful political and military force and is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's army in Syria's civil war.

Hezbollah sees Yemen strikes causing more Mideast tension


Hezbollah condemned as “unjust aggression” Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen on Thursday and said it takes the region towards increased tension.

The Shi'ite group, which is backed by Iran, also called on Saudi Arabia and its allies to immediately and unconditionally halt the strikes.

“This adventure, (which) lacks wisdom and legal and legitimate justification and which is led by Saudi Arabia, is taking the region towards increased tension and dangers for the future and the present of the region,” its statement said.

“We see that this aggression secures American interests and offers a great favor for the Zionist enemy,” it said, a reference to Israel.

Did the Obama administration drop Iran and Hezbollah from its threat assessment?


There’s a change in how James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, assesses terrorist threats, and it has sowed some confusion.

The Times of Israel this week reported that the DNI’s annual threat assessment “removed Iran and Hezbollah from its list of terrorism threats.” Newsweek picked up the story, and the American Jewish Committee tweeted its reaction, which it said was “beyond shocking.”

Both publications quote experts suggesting there is a quid quo pro with Iran as nuclear talks appear to be progressing and as it shares an enemy with the United States in ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Except calling what Clapper has done a “removal” of Iran and Hezbollah isn’t quite accurate. Compare this year’s threat assessment to last year‘s and you’ll see that all threats have been “removed”; the terrorism section in the assessment no longer appears as a list. So not only have Iran and Hezbollah disappeared, so have Al Qaeda and homegrown threats.

Instead, Clapper focuses exclusively in the section on terrorism on the threat posed by the ISIS.

This is not insignificant: The exclusive focus on a single threat has policy implications for how the United States confronts terror threats in other arenas. Israelis watching Hezbollah’s massive arms buildup have reason to be concerned that the following warning, in the 2014 report, does not appear this year: “Hizbollah has increased its global terrorist activity in recent years to a level that we have not seen since the 1990s.” The group’s eight mentions in 2014 are reduced to one this year.

But the terrorism section’s exclusive focus on ISIS does not add up to a “quid pro quo” for Iran; Iran, for one thing, gains nothing from the “removal” of another of its natural enemies, Al Qaeda, from the list.

Indeed, Iran in 2015 still merits its own listings, as it did last year, under separate sections, including “cyber,” “weapons of mass destruction” and “regional threats.”

Here’s how the Iran entry in the “regional threats” begins: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is an ongoing threat to U.S. national interests because of its support to the Assad regime in Syria, promulgation of anti-Israeli policies, development of advanced military capabilities, and pursuit of its nuclear program.”

In other words, Iran still remains very much a threat, according to the U.S. government.

Hezbollah says Israel wants to set ‘new rules’ with Syria raid


An Israeli attack which killed several prominent members of Lebanon's Hezbollah last week was an attempt by Israel to set “new rules” in the conflict between the two foes, Hezbollah's deputy leader said at a gathering to commemorate those who died.

Sheikh Naim Qassem's comments were the first reaction from the group's leadership to the missile attack in the Syrian province of Quneitra near the Israeli border.

Among those killed was an Iranian officer and the son of Hezbollah's late military chief. Israel has struck Hezbollah inSyria several times since the conflict there began, hitting weapons deliveries, but the group did not acknowledge these attacks.

However, the prominence of those killed in the latest raid will make it difficult to ignore for Hezbollah, putting the group under pressure to retaliate and also undermining a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

“It is a Zionist attempt to lay the foundation for a new (military) equation in the framework of our struggle with them and achieve by these strikes what they could not achieve in war … But Israel is too weak to be able to draw new steps or new rules,” he told mourners.

Qassem did not elaborate but hinted that the group would respond. He said Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would give the group's formal stance in the coming days.

“We will continue our jihad and we will be where we should be without (allowing) anything to stand in our way,” he said.

Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war against Israel in 2006, could attack Israel from its Lebanon stronghold, hit Israeli interests abroad, or attack Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.

All options could trigger another all-out war or even a wider conflict between Israel and Syria.

Fighters from Iran-backed Hezbollah have been fighting alongside government forces in Syria's civil war and have helped turn the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

The group says it is fighting in Syria in part to prevent Islamist militant fighters, such as al Qaeda's Syrian wing, the Nusra Front, and Islamic State, from advancing into Lebanon.

Speaking to Israel's Army Radio, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon declined to confirm or deny Israel had carried out the attack, but said reinforcements had been sent to the north.

“Given what was prevented on the Golan Heights, what was exposed is an Iranian effort, in partnership with Hezbollah, to open a front with us on the Golan Heights,” he said.

“They started with rockets and a few bombs. We understood that they apparently want to upgrade it to high-quality and far more significant terrorist attacks …,” the minister said.

L.A.’s Iranian Jews must launch new Iran advocacy campaign


Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak to a Southern California Christian group about the significant human rights violations that the Iranian regime has waged against the Christians, Jews and other religious minorities living in Iran today. While this congregation was sympathetic and very receptive to my brief discussion, they were completely in the dark regarding the plight of minorities, women, journalists and even average Muslim-Iranians facing tremendous hardships at the hands of Iran’s mullahs. 

Likewise, many average non-Jewish groups I have come across have by and large been totally unaware of the substantial role Iran has played in arming, funding and fanning the fires of terrorism perpetrated by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel. Today the majority of Iranian Jews living in America very clearly see Iran’s significant role in destabilizing the entire Middle East, funding and arming terrorist groups, as well as calling for another Holocaust against Jews with their daily chants of “Death to Israel.” We as Iranian Jews not only understand the Farsi language declarations of genocide repeated by Iran’s ayatollahs, but the majority of us have experienced the evils of the Iranian regime firsthand. 

Nevertheless, the Iranian-Jewish community in Los Angeles has never undertaken its own serious, comprehensive and relentless public advocacy campaign to educate the larger non-Iranian American community about the very real and emerging dangers of Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime to the Middle East and the entire world. This education of the greater public about who the Iranian regime consists of and its objectives is essential in transforming the U.S. government’s approach to Iran’s threats against non-Shiite Muslims throughout the world. In my humble opinion, now is the time for L.A.’s Iranian Jews to stand up and undertake such a critical grassroots advocacy campaign to educate every other community in America about the rising threat of Iran’s regime.

For more than 30 years, I have witnessed my community of Iranian Jews in Southern California growing and prospering after establishing new roots here. They have flourished in America and also generously given back to the larger Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Iranian Jews in Los Angeles have even established their own nonprofit groups, such as the Iranian American Jewish Federation, Magbit, the Hope Foundation and 30 Years After, to advance our community issues and to help Israel. While Iranian-American Jews have also been involved with other organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee about raising public awareness of Iran’s nuclear threat, they have never launched their own initiative to educate the Latino, African-American, Asian, labor union, LGBTQ and other communities about the horrific human-rights abuses and spread of global terrorism carried out by Iran’s clerics and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). So who better than Iranian Jews, who experienced firsthand anti-Semitism, random arrests, unceasing tortures and imprisonments at the hands of this Iranian regime, to speak out today about the evil nature of the regime? Who else but Iranian Jews, who have had family members randomly executed by the Iranian regime, to educate the public about the regime’s unmerciful thugs? Who else but Iranian Jews, who have witnessed their Christian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, Sunni and other religious minority countrymen experience unspeakable abuse and murders at the hands of the Iranian regime’s secret police, to speak out? Who better than Iranian Jews to educate the larger American public about how Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other regime strongmen are very openly calling for the elimination of all people who do not follow their radical form of Shia Islam? While in recent years, individual Jewish-Iranian activists in Los Angeles have indeed spoken out about the cancerous spread of the Iranian regime’s evil among its own people in Iran and the entire Middle East, much more of this type of public advocacy must be done on a larger scale by local Iranian Jews. Additionally, while the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has attempted to put on a happy and nicer face for the Iranian regime with his public relations campaigns, we as Iranian Jews have a duty to remove the smiling mask from Rouhani and his minions in order to expose their true nature and evil actions to the American public.

More importantly, as Israel wages a war to defend innocent civilians from the terrorism of Hamas, Iranian Jews, who listen to Farsi language news broadcasts from Iranian state-run media, must make all Americans aware of what the regime’s leaders are saying about their role in perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, this past July, on Iranian-state run television, Khamenei called for all those who “love Palestine” to send arms to the West Bank and turn it into another Gaza. He also issued a religious edict for the IRGC and its subordinate Basij militia to send arms and fighters to the area. Likewise in July, the Iranian Islamic Assembly spokesman boasted on state-run television about the Iranian regime’s role in providing Hamas with rocket technology. The chairman of the Parliament of Iran, Ali Larijani, has repeatedly said on Iranian state-run news programs that Iran originally provided Hamas with the know-how to produce its own homemade rockets. Mohsen Rezai, the secretary of the Iranian regime’s Expediency Discernment Council, a high official in the regime, has recently called for more kidnappings of hundreds of Israelis and making them human shields in Gaza. Rezai has promised more arms and more financial support to Hamas until “all of Palestine is free of the Jews.” This information is very rarely reported by Western news media for whatever reason, but we as Iranian Jews have a duty to name and shame every single member of the Iranian regime who is calling for a perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and glorifying the genocide of Jews in Israel. 

So as Iranian Jews, we must venture out of our enclaves in Beverly Hills, Pico-Robertson, Encino, Brentwood and Tarzana in order to reach out to every local group in Los Angeles. Whether it is speaking to the Christian-Korean community in Koreatown to discuss the Iranian regime’s abuse of Christians, or reaching out to the LGBTQ community in West Hollywood about how gays are forced to have gender reassignment surgeries and face executions in Iran, a new public advocacy program about the evils of the Iranian regime is imperative today. Without the larger public knowing what crimes against humanity the Iranian regime is committing, no one will raise a voice to our elected officials to ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian regime. No one will demand that the current U.S. administration take a tougher stance on Iran’s heinous human-rights records if we as Iranian-American Jews do not educate others about this regime. Just as American Jews proudly launched a very vocal and public campaign against the former Soviet Union for its mistreatment of Jews and human-rights activists in Russia during the 1960s and 1970s, so must we as Iranian Jews in America today launch the same type of campaign against the Iranian regime. In the end, as the first victims of the Iranian regime’s reign of terror and murder, it is incumbent on us to educate the American public and the larger world about the tsunami of evil Iran’s regime is seeking to unleash on the Middle East as well as the free world. If we continue to remain silent about the human-rights crimes carried out by the Iranian regime against all Iranians and the terrorism it sponsors against non-Iranians, we have committed an even greater crime.


Karmel Melamed is an attorney and award-winning journalist based in Southern California. His blog “Iranian American Jews” can be found at: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews/

Report: Iran ordered Hezbollah to carry out attack on Israel over nuclear facility bombing


Iran instructed Hezbollah to attack Israeli forces on the border with Lebanon in retaliation for the “bombing” of Iran’s Parchin nuclear facility, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported.

The report Friday in the al-Rai newspaper cites high-level Washington-based European diplomats, who said a “foreign country” was responsible for the bombing of the military base and suspected nuclear facility.

The report also says that Western intelligence agencies believe that Iran has been conducting tests at Parchin. The bombing thwarted the tests, according to the report.

Hezbollah said Wednesday the attack on Lebanon’s border with Israel that left two Israeli soldiers injured was a “message” for Israel.

“This is a message. Even though we are busy in Syria and on the eastern front in Lebanon, our eyes remain open and our resistance is ready to confront the Israeli enemy,” Sheik Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, told Lebanese OTV television late Tuesday, Reuters reported.

Satellite images taken of Parchin after the explosion at the military facility show damage consistent with an air attack, defense expert Ronen Solomon told Israel Channel 2 and Defense Magazine.

In the new Middle East, an embarrassment of evils


One of the crazy things about following the Middle East is trying to keep track of all the bad guys. Remember when Iran was the big bad Islamic wolf? Or al-Qaida? Or Hezbollah? Or the Muslim Brotherhood? Or Hamas?

Now, as if in a flash, along comes ISIS to become the evil flavor of the month. Seriously, how much evil can one region generate?

A screenwriter couldn’t make up such a cocktail of hatred. Just for starters, you have Shias against Sunnis, Persians against Arabs, Arabs against Turks, Turks against Persians, Iraqis against insurgents, Syrians against insurgents, insurgents against insurgents, Lebanese against Syrians, Egyptians against Qataris, Saudis against Iran — and everyone against the Jews.

I’ll leave it to the scholars to explain how each shade of evil differs from the next. I know that a lot of people these days are into the “Who’s worse? Hamas or ISIS?” game, but from where I sit, whether you chop people’s heads off or hide behind children to murder other children, evil is evil.

Even that old standby, “the enemy of your enemy is my friend,” doesn’t really hold up anymore. Just look at ISIS and Syria.

One of the sworn enemies of ISIS just happens to be … yeah, the biggest murderer of the new century, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who’s responsible for the deaths of nearly 200,000 of his own people.

I know ISIS is the height of evil, but can I really cheer for that Syrian butcher against anybody?

Same with the Jew-hating Holocaust deniers in Iran – they also hate ISIS. Aside from the fact that we belong to the same species, do I really want to have anything in common with the nuclear mullahs of Persia—even if it’s a common enemy?

It’s hard to fathom that one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel – Hezbollah – could now be fighting in Syria against one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel—ISIS.

Consider also Saudi Arabia, presumably in the “moderate” camp of the Mideast jungle. We’re now supposed to be buddy-buddies with the Saudi royalty because they’re the enemies of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. But wait. Guess who for years has been funding the most violent strains of Islam in the region? That’s right, the Ferrari-driving House of Saud.

Those turkeys are surely coming home to roost.

The craziness is everywhere. Remember when the Muslim Brotherhood was running the show in Egypt and helping smuggle lethal weaponry to their Hamas brothers in Gaza? Well, the Brotherhood became so hated in Egypt that most of them are now in jail. So, guess who’s now Egypt’s sworn enemy? That’s right, Hamas, the sworn enemy of Israel.

Of course, the Egyptian people are not exactly crowding into Tahrir Square to cheer on the Zionist army as it fights Hamas. But cheering privately? Highly likely.

We saw another example of the new Middle East craziness a few weeks ago when Egypt first tried to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

On one side you had Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and (yes!) Israel—all sworn enemies of Hamas– and on the other side you had Turkey, Qatar and (yes!) the United States. Why would the U.S. be on the “wrong” side?

The best analysis I’ve read is that President Obama is obsessed with closing a nuclear deal with Iran, and since the Egyptian-led coalition is strongly opposed to Iran, Obama was reluctant to poke Iran in the eye by empowering the anti-Iran coalition on any issue.

In any event, now that ISIS has crossed the line by beheading an American journalist, Obama is facing some serious cognitive dissonance: Should he align with the evil mullahs of Iran or the butcher of Damascus against the evil killers of ISIS, at least covertly? Good luck with that one.

I knew things were getting hairy when I asked my daughter in Tel Aviv how she was holding up with all the latest Hamas rockets, and she replied: “We’re worried about ISIS now.”

This is what the new Middle East has come down to– an embarrassment of evils. ISIS may be a new brand of evil, but when I look at longtime murderous entities like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran or Syria, all I can think is: Pick your poison, folks.

If a sinister game designer wanted to create a new video game to capture what’s going on right now in the Middle East jungle, that’s a good name right there: “Pick your poison.”

There wouldn’t be any good guys in this game– just an orgy of bad guys. The whole fun would be in deciding who the baddest guy is at any moment, and knocking down as many of these guys as possible.

The ultimate goal would be to take down the baddest “bad guy” of them all, the one the whole world really hates: Israel.

Israel concerned about any U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq


Israel voiced concern on Monday at the prospect of its closest ally, Washington, cooperating with its what it considers its deadliest foe, Iran, to stave off a sectarian break-up of Iraq.

But, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters, the United States and other major powers have pledged that any such cooperation would not set back their drive to curb Tehran's nuclear program.

The Obama administration said on Sunday it was considering talks with Iran about the Iraqi crisis. Iranian officials have voiced openness to working with the Americans in helping Baghdad repel a Sunni Muslim insurgency.

While deploring the “ungodly horror” of the bloodshed in Iraq, Steinitz said Iran should not be helped to extend its sway in Iran where fellow Shi'ite Muslims form the majority.

That, he said would give Tehran an arc of control running through Syria, where the Iranians back embattled President Bashar Assad, and on to Lebanon, where they have powerful allies in the Hezbollah militia.

“And we would especially not want for a situation to be created where, because both the United States and Iran support the government of (Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki, it softens the American positions on the issue which is most critical for the peace of the world, which is the Iranian nuclear issue,” Steinitz said in an interview.

Even before the Iraq crisis, Israel was concerned about Iran's nuclear talks with Washington and five other powers, aimed at ensuring Iran is not developing atomic weapons capability.

Israel fears Tehran would be able to shake off international sanctions built up over the last decade.

SEPARATION

Steinitz was cautiously optimistic that the negotiations would be unaffected by any international involvement in Iraq.

“We are troubled, but we have been made to understand by everyone – the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans – that a total separation will be enforced,” he said.

Steinitz said such a separation of policies would be similar to Russia's participation alongside Western powers in the Iranian nuclear talks even as it spars with them over Ukraine.

Neither Washington nor Tehran, old adversaries with often contrary interests in the Middle East, have articulated how they might cooperate in Iraq.

Washington has no appetite to send troops back to the country it occupied for almost a decade, but the Obama administration has suggested it could carry out air strikes against insurgents.

Steinitz, who regularly confers with the United States about the Iranian nuclear negotiations and other regional issues, said he did not know what actions the Americans might take in Iraq.

Western diplomats suspect Iran has in the past sent some of its Revolutionary Guards, an elite force separate from the regular army, to train and advise the Iraqi army or allied militia. During its occupation of Iraq, the United States said some attacks on its forces had Iranian help.

Iran says it has never sent forces to Iraq but might now assist the Maliki government with advisers and weaponry.

Another Israeli security official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said deeper Iranian commitment in Iraq could make Tehran more accommodating in the nuclear talks as it might feel over-extended and reluctant to spark further crises.

“They would have to redirect resources, perhaps even pull their forces out of Syria to send to Iraq instead,” the second Israeli official said. “Let them sink into that new quagmire.”

Steinitz rejected this view, however, saying: “I would never look to solve one travesty with another travesty.”

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Iran looks to the north


In the United States, our focus is on Iran’s activities to its west and east. Tehran supports Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, menaces oil exports in the Gulf and threatens Israel with annihilation. On its other flank, it seeks influence in Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to withdraw. However, we tend to ignore Iran’s actions to its north, even as this — the greater Caspian region — emerges as a particularly active theater for Iran’s ambitions of regional power.

We do so to our detriment. With Washington’s focus elsewhere during the past few months, Iran has steadily pushed the envelope with its northern neighbors, in the disputed Caspian Sea and along its land borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is considered more moderate than his predecessor, since his election, Iran seems to be continuing its northward pivot.

In late June, Iranian warships sailed across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan. Their mission was to coordinate plans for a major joint naval exercise in the fall. This is noteworthy because not only is the Caspian a center of oil production that is exported to Western markets, but also a key transit hub for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces and equipment from Afghanistan. Vessels with U.S. military hardware routinely sail from Kazakhstan’s port of Aktau on the eastern shore to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in the west. Joint Iranian-Russian naval exercises could disrupt both the energy and transit activities on the sea.

It would not be the first time. Iranian warships have, in the past, threatened to attack Azerbaijani oil fields that were at the time being explored by BP vessels. The issue of how the Caspian’s energy-rich waters are divided among the littoral states remains unresolved. While most of the countries on its shores have come to bilateral understandings, Iran refuses to cooperate with any of its neighbors — except when it teams with Russia to threaten the rest.

Iran is also injecting itself into the region’s most protracted conflict: the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran supported pro-Russian Armenia in the 1990s against secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan, Iranian clerics are now painting the conflict as a war against Islam. They recently met with ethnic Azeris seeking to liberate Karabakh. 

On the other hand, Tehran has cultivated pro-Iranian groups and extremist clerics in Azerbaijan to undermine the government in Baku. It has mobilized hacker attacks under the banner of the Iranian Cyber Army. These activities are intensifying as the October presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches.

Earlier this year, Iranian lawmakers on the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Parliament released a number of statements demanding the annexation of 17 of Azerbaijan’s cities, including the capital Baku. They prepared a bill that would revise the 1828 treaty demarcating Iran’s northern border to pave the way for a greater Iran that could incorporate territory from across the Caspian region, from Turkey to Central Asia. It seems that Israel is not the only country that Tehran has considered wiping off the map.

These sorts of actions have actually pushed Azerbaijan and Israel closer together. The two have a joint venture on the production of drone aircraft, as well as a wider defense technology relationship wherein Azerbaijan has sought anti-aircraft systems from Israel to guard against potential Iranian attack. Such threats are all too specific for Azerbaijan, as Iran’s leadership has consistently mentioned Azerbaijan’s major oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean as a primary target in the event of conflict with the West.

Were such a clash to occur, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to be more cognizant of the northern angle in Iran’s aggressive regional policy. Even without the prospect of a major conflict, U.S. Iran policy should reflect Tehran’s threats to our interests in the Caspian and to regional partners such as Azerbaijan. For all Iran watchers, its activities to its north will serve as a key test of Mr. Rouhani’s supposed moderation.

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Times.


Alexandros Petersen is the author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).

Iran election offers choice, but little change


Friday's presidential election in Iran is unlikely to bring significant change to the Islamic republic, whose supreme leader has ensured hardline candidates dominate the field. But the sole moderate could yet upset the race.

World powers embroiled in talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear program are looking for signs of a recalibration of its negotiating position after eight years of inflexibility under firey populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran's uncompromising nuclear negotiator Saed Jalili is prominent among four hardliners competing for the post, while one of his predecessors, the more conciliatory Hassan Rohani, has been endorsed by reformists after moderate former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was barred.

While intensifying nuclear-related sanctions on Iran have been a hot election topic, the other major global issue, its backing of President Bashar Assad and Lebanon's Hezbollah in Syria's civil war, has not been raised by the six candidates.

Ahmadinejad, who gave repeated speeches seeming to call for the destruction of Israel, will not be missed in the West, but expectations for a radical change in direction are low.

“It would be good not to have someone like Ahmadinejad but it won't make much difference. We're not waiting with bated breath for the new president because the supreme leader is running policy,” said a Western diplomat.

The president's comparative lack of power within the Iranian system does not make the election insignificant however.

“The Iranian president … will have a seat at the table when Iran's major foreign policy and nuclear policies are decided,” Mohsen Milani, an Iran expert at the University of South Florida told reporters. “Elections are not free,” he said, “but they are extremely significant.”

After publicly backing Ahmadinejad when protesters disputed his 2009 election, Khamenei fell out with him after he sought to use public rallies to challenge the leader's authority. Analysts say Khamenei wants a compliant president, but above all, no repeat of the 2009 unrest.

“There's a certain paranoia on the regime's part about the potential for more unrest and discontent pouring out into the streets. They really want to manage this election,” U.S.-based Iranian journalist Hooman Majd told reporters.

“That is unusual and different than in the past when elections have been much freer,” he said.

Authorities barred two prominent dissenting figures from standing, leaving four “shades of grey” conservative hardliners loyal to Khamenei alongside a former oil minister who says he is neither conservative nor reformist, and moderate cleric Rohani.

Reformists, led by former president Mohammad Khatami who won election landslides in 1997 and 2001, endorsed Rohani this week, adding to pressure on the hardliners to thin their field.

Rafsanjani has also endorsed Rohani, who was his national security advisor when president.

Rohani has openly criticized the pervasive security and vowed to improve Iran's relations with the outside world. Several members of Rohani's team and supporters were arrested after calls for the release of political prisoners were chanted at one of his election rallies.

TIGHT CONTROLS

To avoid the embarrassment of the 2009 protests, Iran's electoral authorities have left little to chance to ensure the ballot passes off quietly – from disqualifying high-profile candidates, to tight controls on campaigning and TV debates.

Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who as reformist candidates led the “Green Movement” that disputed the 2009 election result, are under house arrest and the jubilant pre-election reformist rallies of that time are absent.

“There are no gatherings in the streets, candidates cannot have public meetings in the city, only inside stadiums and universities, with many police around. Practically there are no election activities on the streets,” said a youthful Tehran resident who told of a larger police presence in the city.

“There's no atmosphere like four years ago.”

Iranians who yearn for real change in Iran, estimated by some analysts at up to two-thirds of the populace, have become disillusioned with politics since what they see as the election fix of 2009 and may not turn out to vote.

“I was in line for an hour to vote on election day (in 2009) …. but even before the voting had ended they said Ahmadinejad had won. I learned my lesson four years ago,” said Mona, 31, an accountant.

But others were hoping to prevent a hardline victory.

“I am not excited about voting at all. I think I will vote but not because I am hopeful or interested but because I worry that another hardliner might come to power,” said Hossein, a student of English literature in the central city of Isfahan.

A big turnout would likely help Rohani and the reformist cause, but would also boost the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic's mix of religious rule backed by popular sovereignty.

A Rohani win, if permitted by Iran's electoral authorities, would lead to more tension between the president and supreme leader of the kind seen during the Khatami years and during Ahmadinejad's second term from 2005 – the inherent strain between the Islamic and the republic halves of Iran's system.

“You simply cannot have a republic whose president and parliament is subordinated to the supreme leader,” said Milani. “What I believe has been happening in Iran over the last eight years is a movement away from the Islamic Republic and towards making an Islamic government.”

LOYALTY AND OBEDIENCE

What started as a broad coalition to overthrow the U.S.-backed shah in 1979 has become ever narrower over time, analysts and diplomats say, making differences between those contesting power slight. But they are magnified by the struggle for office.

“All candidates have been very critical of Ahmadinejad's economic performance. But a significant difference has emerged over foreign policy and the handling of nuclear negotiations,” said Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University in Virginia.

“What we see emerging is a broad loose coalition of reformers … against the ruling conservatives,” he said.

Although Khamenei says he backs no candidate, analysts say he is counting on one of three “Principlist” contenders – who profess utmost loyalty to the theocratic system – taking office.

Jalili is centre stage in the Principlists' camp. He has taken an uncompromising stance in several rounds of negotiations with world powers and is supported by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, also backed by the Guards and respected by Tehran residents for his efficiency, is regarded as more moderate as is the third “Principlist” running, Khamenei's foreign affairs advisor Ali Akbar Velayati.

Velayati's lack of power base would limit his ability to challenge the leader if he became president, but also limits his appeal as it does for non Principlist ex-oil minister Mohammad Gharazi and Mohsen Rezaie, secretary of the Expediency Council.

The refusal of any of the three Principlists to quit the race may be an indication that the leader has not yet given his backing to any one of them.

“It's very unpredictable right now,” said a Western diplomat based in Tehran. “Ultimately, the leader doesn't want a strong president who thinks he can act independently.”

Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich; editing by Jon Hemming and Philippa Fletcher

France says 3,000-4,000 Hezbollah are fighting in Syria


France said on Wednesday its intelligence services believed 3-4,000 guerillas from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's army in Syria's civil war.

“As far as Hezbollah militants present in the battlefield, the figures range from 3,000 to 10,000, our estimates are between 3,000 and 4,000,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told lawmakers.

The United Nations' human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Wednesday a dramatic increase in the role of Iran-backed Hezbollah militants backing Syrian government forces was inflaming regional tensions, without giving numbers.

Fabius pointed the finger at Iran for pushing Hezbollah into the Syrian conflict.

“When you have fighters that are really well armed that are prepared to die and they are several thousand that makes a difference,” he said.

[Related: U.S. calls on Hezbollah to pull fighters out of Syria]

Fabius has dismissed any suggestion that Iran could be involved in resolving the Syrian crisis, because of its backing of Assad's government.

“There has been a change on the ground. The involvement of Hezbollah and the fact the Russians have delivered weapons has changed things,” he said. “Even if many elements that are fighting are Syrian, they are being guided by Iranian officials.”

France said on May 23 it hoped an initiative could be agreed by the end of June to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on the EU's list of terrorist organizations, on the grounds the group is importing Syria's war into Lebanon.

Paris has traditionally been cautious about backing steps to sanction Hezbollah, fearing it could destabilize Lebanon and put U.N. peacekeepers at risk, but in recent weeks has said it would consider all options.

Reporting by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche

Russia to send Syria air defense system to deter ‘hotheads’


Russia will deliver an advanced air defense system to the Syrian government despite Western opposition because it will help deter “hotheads” who back foreign intervention, a senior Russian official said on Tuesday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also accused the European Union of “throwing fuel on the fire” by letting its arms embargo on Syrian expire, saying it would complicate efforts to arrange an international peace conference.

His remarks toughened Russia's defiance of the United States, France and Israel over the planned sale of precision S-300 missile systems to President Bashar al-Assad's government, which is battling a Western and Gulf Arab-backed insurgency.

“We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads … from exploring scenarios in which this conflict could be given an international character with participation of outside forces, to whom this idea is not foreign,” he told a news conference.

Western experts say the air defense system could significantly boost Syria's ability to stave off outside intervention in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.

The S-300s can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles and their delivery would improve Assad's government's chances of holding out in Damascus. Western nations say the Russian arms deliveries could increase tension and encourage Assad.

Moscow is standing firm on the sale, despite a trip to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month in which he pleaded with President Vladimir Putin to halt the delivery, and a veiled warning of a military response by Israel.

“I can say that the shipments are not on their way yet,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday at a conference near Tel Aviv. “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.”

POWERFUL ALLY

Russia has sent anti-missile defense systems to Syria before, but says it has not sent offensive weapons or arms that can be used against the anti-government forces. A source close to Russia's state arms exporter said a contract to supply Syria with fighter jets had been suspended.

Ryabkov was unable to confirm whether S-300s had already been delivered but said “we will not disavow them”.

Russia has been Assad's most powerful ally during the conflict, opposing sanctions and blocking, with China, three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to pressure the government to stop fighting.

Moscow opposes military intervention or arming Syrian rebels and defends its right to deliver arms to Assad's government.

Ryabkov said the failure by the EU to renew its arms embargo on Syria at a meeting on Monday would undermine the chances for peace talks which Moscow and Washington are trying to organize.

“The European Union is essentially throwing fuel on the fire in Syria,” he said of the EU compromise decision which will allow EU states to supply arms to the rebels if they wish.

His comments were echoed by Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who also criticised a visit to Syria on Monday by U.S. Senator John McCain, who met rebels fighting Assad's government.

Britain and France, which opposed renewing the arms embargo, have made clear they reserve the right to send arms immediately, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1, but have made no decisions yet.

A senior French official said the S-300 was brought up at talks between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday.

“Obviously it poses a huge problem for us because if they deliver these weapons – they are ground-to-air missiles – and if we were to set up air corridors, then you can see the contradiction between the two,” the official said.

Israel says Russian weapons sent to Syria could end up in the hands of its enemy, Iran, or the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Israeli Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the S-300 could reach deep into the Jewish state and threaten flights over its main commercial airport near Tel Aviv.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alison Williams

Syria fires on Israeli military vehicle, Israel returns fire


Syria fired on and damaged an Israeli army jeep, and Israel retaliated with a missile attack, the Israeli military said.

No one was injured when Syria opened fire on an Israeli army patrol early Tuesday morning in the Golan Heights, the Israel Defense Forces said. It was the third time this week that Israeli positions were targeted by Syria.

In retaliation, the IDF said an Israeli missile struck the source of Tuesday’s gunfire.

The IDF lodged a complaint with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, a peacekeeping force that was established in 1974.

The Syrian military claimed in a statement issued Tuesday that its military destroyed an Israeli military vehicle and its occupants. The statement said the jeep crossed the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights.

Israeli troops manning a border observation point in the Golan Heights were fired on Sunday and Monday. The Israelis did not retaliate but lodged a separate complaint with the U.N. observer force.

Also Tuesday, Israel transferred an injured Syrian national from the border to a hospital in northern Israel for surgery to treat shrapnel wounds.

Ditto


Syria warns Israel it could enter Golan


A Syrian government official warned that his country can enter the Israeli-held Golan Heights at any time.

“The Golan is Syrian Arab territory and will remain so, even if the Israeli army is stationed there,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said Sunday at a news conference in Damascus. “We have the right to go in and out of it whenever we want and however we please.”

The statement came in response to two alleged Israeli airstrikes last week on Syrian military targets, which unnamed Israel and U.S. officials say targeted long-range missiles in transit from Iran to Hezbollah.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War. A United Nations peacekeeping force patrols the area.

Also on Sunday, Syrian rebels released four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers stationed on the Golan who were kidnapped last week. The Philippines and other countries with soldiers stationed there have threatened to withdraw their troops.

Assad vows ‘strategic revenge’ on Israel, modeled on Hezbollah


Syria will “give Hezbollah everything” in recognition of its support and will follow the terror group’s model of “resistance” against Israel, a Lebanese newspaper on Thursday quoted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as saying, AFP reported.

Assad’s comments, published by Al-Akhbar, reportedly came during meetings with Lebanese visitors in Damascus and appeared intended to refute any suggestion that last week’s reported Israeli airstrikes on Syrian targets would halt assistance to the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Al-Akhbar said Lebanese visitors quoted Assad as expressing “confidence, satisfaction and great gratitude towards Hezbollah.”

Iranian-backed Hezbollah is a longtime ally of the Syrian regime and has sent fighters to battle alongside Assad’s troops, particularly in the Qusayr district of the central province of Homs. Assad said Syria would reward Hezbollah for its loyalty.

Assad said Syria could “easily” respond to Israeli airstrikes by “firing a few rockets at Israel,” but Syria instead was seeking “strategic revenge, by opening the door of resistance and turning all of Syria into a country of resistance.”

Syrian wake-up


Yes, America, we’ve heard: You’re war-weary.

It’s at least something our divided country can agree upon: Americans across party lines oppose sending troops, weapons or air support to the rebel fighters in Syria. “War-weary Nation Wary of Syria,” the centrist Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote. “We’re war-weary,” echoed the libertarian magazine Reason. “Americans are war-weary,” Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch said on Fox News. “War Weary: Poll Shows Little Support for Syria Intervention,” a Huffington Post headline screamed.

But guess what, America: Whether you’re weary, ready or not, you’re in this thing.  

Last Friday and Sunday, Israel carried out airstrikes that caused an L.A.-sized earthquake in Damascus. 

Friends don’t let friends launch surprise missile strikes, and Israel planned the Syrian attack with American knowledge, if not coordination, as a way to thwart the Triple Entente of Syria-Iran-Hezbollah. 

And that’s the way it is with conflicts in the Middle East. They’re not like spring colds that eventually just go away on their own. No, these things fester, grow more complex, retreat, then roar back far worse. that’s not a cold, that’s syphilis. 

Those of us who called for President Barack Obama to take firm measures two years ago to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, when the body counts were low and the violence rising, can now say, “See, the options have only gotten worse, the risks greater, the casualty and refugee counts far higher, and the power plays more complex.”

Iran rushed in to fill the vacuum created by a lack of American resolve. The mullahs are using the chaos to strengthen Hezbollah in Lebanon. That’s what drew Israel’s preemptive strike.  

“Iran has only one major diplomatic success, and that’s Syria,” former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said at an Israeli Policy Forum discussion in New York last week. “The only Arab country that goes with Iran is Syria, meaning Assad. The fall of the Assad regime [will be] a huge blow to Iran. I’m not saying the fall of Assad will bring members of the Zionist Congress to rule Syria. They may all be bad guys. But if you want to deal a blow to Iran, this is a huge blow.”

So Israel is now drawn into Syria as part of its larger war against Iranian nuclear ambitions. 

“Hezbollah and Iran are working without any inhibitions in Syria,” said Meridor, who served as minister of intelligence and atomic energy. “They put all their hopes on the Assad regime. This is the unholy triangle: Assad, Hezbollah, Iran.” 

And just because Obama hasn’t sent weapons doesn’t mean the Saudis and other Sunni powers haven’t. Those arms have gone to buttress the more radically Islamist elements, both homegrown and foreign-supplied. Those were few in number when Syria’s Arab Spring began. Now they’re more formidable.

So what should we do? Or, rather, what should we urge our president to do?

At the Milken Global Conference last week, a leader of the Syrian opposition showed up to make a compelling case for the right kind of American intervention. 

Najib Ghadbian, currently a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, has been integral to the Damascus Spring and other milestones along the path to Assad’s eventual, inevitable demise. Now, the unassuming academic presents a business card that lists him as Representative to the United States National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. 

Ghadbian sits on the coalition’s 70-member “mini-parliament.” He described how the Syrian opposition has formed a government-in-waiting with ministries, economists and factional representatives. 

In front of an American audience, in Beverly Hills, the question he had to answer 10 different ways was whether Syria is doomed to become a nest of radical Islam.

“It’s first a concern for us,” he stressed. But Ghadbian said extremist elements make up less than 10 percent of the 160,000-strong Free Syrian Army. 

“We don’t want Syria to be a failed state or an extremist one,” he said. “The way to make sure is to support moderate forces.”

Syrians once supported the radical, Iranian-backed Hezbollah in its attacks against Israel, he said. But now that the Iranian regime is supplying the Syrian army with military equipment, they changed their minds.

“The most hated country in Syria today is Iran,” Ghadbian said. “It’s not Israel; it’s not the U.S., because [Iran is] directly involved and implicated in the killing.”

I asked Ghadbian what he would ask Obama to do tomorrow if he had the president’s ear. 

“Be a leader,” he shot back. “Be a spokesperson for a free Syria. Like Vladimir Putin is for Assad.” 

The United States, which Ghadbian acknowledged has helped with relief efforts and nonlethal military aid, must now take a more active role, creating safe zones, presumably through force, and helping the opposition forces with intelligence and communication. 

“We don’t need boots on the ground; we need leadership,” Ghadbian said with the evident exasperation of someone who is, not surprisingly, truly war-weary.

 

You can see the video of Dr. Najiob Ghadbian here:

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Assad: Syrian army can handle Israel


Syria's army is ready to deal with Israel, Syrian President Bashar Assad told an Iranian official on Syrian state television.

“The Syrian people and its army, who have made important achievements by fighting terrorist and Takfiri groups, are capable of confronting Israel's ventures that represent one of the many faces of terrorism targeting Syria today,” Assad said Tuesday during a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, according to reports.

Assad on the broadcast also accused Israel, as well as Western states, with involvement in the two-year Syrian civil war.

The comments are his first public remarks since alleged Israeli airstrikes in Syria over the weekend. The two strikes reportedly targeted long-range missiles sent from Iran for the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah.

His comments came as Internet connections between Syria and the rest of the world were severed. The cutoff remained in effect on Wednesday. It is unknown if there is Internet communication within Syria, Reuters reported.

The BBC cited the Syrian Arab News Agency as saying that the Internet shutdown was the result of a fault in fiber optic cables, but Syrian activists believe the shutdown is deliberate.

Syria attacks suggest Israel can act with impunity


Twice in three days, Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace and fired on suspected weapons caches bound for Hezbollah — and nothing has happened in response.

Some experts are predicting that will continue to be the case following airstrikes near Damascus on Friday and Sunday that are widely believed to be the work of the Israel Defense Forces. According to reports, the strikes targeted shipments of long-range, Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles capable of striking deep into Israel.

Israel hasn’t commented on the strikes, but the IDF has moved two Iron Dome missile defense batteries to its northern border and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed his departure to China for several hours to convene his security cabinet. Meanwhile, Syria’s foreign minister told CNN on Sunday that the strikes amounted to a “declaration of war.”

But such gestures, analysts say, are merely symbolic. Torn by a civil war now in its third year, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is too beleaguered to fight back. And Hezbollah, the Lebanese party considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, is considered too preoccupied propping up its Syrian patron to respond.

“Today Israel can act with impunity in Syria,” said Hillel Frisch, an expert on Arab politics at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “The [Syrian] air force isn’t functioning and there’s no defense system. It’s very exposed and weak.”

Syria's civil war augurs a major strategic shift for Israel. The two countries have technically have been in a state of war since the Yom Kippur War ended in 1973. And though the border since then has been largely quiet, Syria was Israel's only neighbor to pose a threat of conventional attack.

But the weakening of the Syrian regime has raised the frightening prospect that its stocks of chemical weapons may fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Israeli officials have said for months that they would take action should Syria transport unconventional weapons to Hezbollah. In January, Israel bombed a Syrian weapons convoy near the Syria-Lebanon border. In 2007, Israel allegedly bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor.

Syria and Hezbollah didn’t respond to those attacks, either. But Hezbollah expert Eyal Zisser said Israel still needs to remain cautious.

“Don’t play with your luck,” said Zisser, also from the Begin-Sadat Center. “There might be a response. Eventually something will happen. Everybody is taking precautions.”

Shlomo Brom, a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the attack sent a message that Israel will act unilaterally if  deemed necessary — in this case, the transfer of long-range weaponry to Hezbollah.

“There needs to be a reason for these attacks,” Brom said. “There was an attack because they crossed our red lines. If they stop crossing our red lines, we won’t hit every weapons transfer.”

Brom added that Hezbollah may avenge the weekend’s attacks several years from now, noting that its deadly bus bombing last year in Bulgaria may have been a response to Israel’s alleged assassination of a senior Hezbollah officer, Imad Mughniyah, in 2008.

Israel reportedly did not notify the United States before the strikes. On Saturday, President Obama said that Israel has the right to defend itself and that he will “let the Israeli government confirm or deny whatever strikes that they've taken.”

“What I have said in the past and I continue to believe is that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” he told the Spanish-language network Telemundo. “We coordinate closely with the Israelis recognizing they are very close to Syria, they are very close to Lebanon.”

The attacks, according to Frisch, also showed Iran that Israel could bomb the Islamic Republic's suspected nuclear weapons program — a possibility Netanyahu frequently raises. But Brom called an attack on Iran “a totally different story — a lot harder and a lot more complicated.”

Whatever the attack’s long-term implications, Zisser said Israel's Syrian border is likely to remain quiet during the coming days.

“We are making too much of this,” he said. “We need to be patient.”

Few options for Syria’s Assad to strike back after Israeli raids


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has few good options for military retaliation after Israel's air strikes over the weekend but the attacks could redouble support from his regional allies Iran and Hezbollah.

Assad, already battling rebel fighters who have seized large parts of his country and killed many thousands of his troops, can ill afford to confront the region's dominant military power in a devastating and likely one-sided war.

And his allies in Iran and Hezbollah are also wary of starting a new battle which would divert from their determined efforts to keep their strategic ally in power in Damascus.

“Significant military action is unlikely,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are not interested in opening another front when clearly their main battle is for the Syrian regime to survive.”

Israel's twin air strikes within 48 hours shook Damascus, sent pillars of flame into the night sky and killed dozens of soldiers.

The war planes struck Assad's elite troops in the valley of the Barada River that flows through Damascus and on Qasioun Mountain overlooking the capital, said residents and opposition sources. Targets included air defenses, Republican Guards and a compound linked to chemical weapons.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 42 soldiers were killed and 100 more were missing. Other opposition sources put the death toll at hundreds of troops. A Western security source said the attacks targeted Iranian missiles intended for Hezbollah which could strike Tel Aviv.

Both Damascus and Tehran have hinted at a tough response.

Syria's information minister said the attacks “opened the door to all possibilities”. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman warned of a “crushing response”.

Syria did not retaliate in 2007 when Israeli jets struck a suspected nuclear facility, nor in January this year when they bombed a suspected missile convoy. On each occasion Damascus said it would choose the time and place to respond.

But the scale of the latest operation will pile pressure on Assad to respond, “not only to save face but also to maintain credibility at home and in the region,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

“That's where Assad's predicament is – what do you do, given the limited options?” he said.

A GOLAN FRONT?

Two years into the uprising against his rule – which has spiraled into a civil war pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against a president from Syria's Alawite minority sect – Assad still has regional supporters.

As well as Iran and Hezbollah, Damascus also has links to some militant Palestinian groups and has a degree of support from neighboring Iraq's Shi'ite-led authorities, who have turned a blind eye to Iranian weapons cargoes flown across Iraqi airspace, according to a senior Iraqi Shi'ite leader.

Syria's pro-government Al-Ikhbariya television gave an indication of what Assad might be considering, quoting unnamed sources who said that Syrian rockets were ready to strike targets inside Israel in the event of any new attack.

It also said Syria had given the green light to Palestinian factions to carry out operations against Israel from across the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

However, neither of those warnings have been spelled out publicly by Syrian officials, and any direct Syrian rocket fire on Israel would be likely to provoke an overwhelming Israeli response.

Perhaps ironically, the step that Assad could take in the Golan that might most alarm Israel would be to retreat from it.

Through four decades of official hostility with Israel, Assad and his father before him kept the Golan Heights frontier quiet. Were Assad to pull back troops, Israel is worried that the heights it captured from Syria in 1967 could become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by the jihadi rebels who are currently battling to topple Assad.

“I would not be surprised if the Assad regime begins the process of pulling out its forces from the Golan to Damascus,” said Gerges. “The (rebel) Nusra Front and other groups are preparing themselves for the ultimate war against Israel…so this would create a strategic predicament for Israel.”

A Western diplomat in the region said that if the Nusra Front gained territory on the Golan Heights it would inevitably suck Israel deeper into to conflict.

“They will not accept that Islamist extremists gain ground,” he said.

HEZBOLLAH SILENCE

Hezbollah, Assad's Lebanese ally which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, has maintained a resolute silence over the Israeli raids on Damascus.

Israel believes Hezbollah has built up an arsenal of about 60,000 missiles and rockets, making it potentially a more formidable foe than in 2006, when the militant group fired 4,000 missiles into Israel.

“Hezbollah has to tread carefully because they can't afford to be fighting in Syria (against the rebels) and provoking Israel on the Israel-Lebanon border,” said another diplomat.

The militant Shi'ite Muslim group, which is accused by Bulgaria of a bombing which killed five Israeli tourists in a Black Sea resort last year, could seek to strike Israeli targets abroad instead of seeking direct confrontation.

But Gerges said the most likely response would be to reinforce its backing for Assad.

“Both Hezbollah and Iran will respond to Israel's escalation by deepening their own involvement in Syria,” he said. “Israel's logic says: 'We will not allow any transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah'. If you deepen Hezbollah and Iranian involvement in Syria, you are punching holes in this logic.”

That deepening support from Assad's allies, matched by the growing support from Gulf Arab countries and Turkey for his rebel foes, could push the Syrian crisis – which has already killed 70,000 people according to the United Nations – one step closer to regional conflict.

“The risk factor has become much more acute in recent weeks,” the second diplomat said, referring to the prospect of a broader war.

Assad has vowed to defeat the rebels and his troops have launched recent counter-offensives around Damascus, the central city of Homs and the coastal province of Banias, where activists said his forces killed scores of people.

Israel cannot assume that the Syrian leader will remain passive if it continues its attacks inside Syria's borders, the former director of Israel's espionage agency Mossad said.

“The broader the strike, the greater the chance that Assad will have no choice to respond,” Danny Yatom told Israel Radio. “The Syrians too have limits. And the limit is not necessarily a blow to Syrian sovereignty, but rather a blow to Syrian honor.”

Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Amman, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Suadad al-Salhi in Baghdad and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; Editing by Peter Graff

Israel to Assad: Air strikes did not aim to help Syria rebels


Israel sought to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday that its recent air strikes around Damascus did not aim to weaken him in the face of a more than two-year-old rebellion.

Officials say Israel is reluctant to take sides in Syria's civil war for fear its actions would boost Islamists who are even more hostile to Israel than the Assad family, which has maintained a stable stand off with the Jewish state for decades.

But Israel has repeatedly warned it will not let Assad's ally Hezbollah receive hi-tech weaponry. Intelligence sources said Israel attacked Iranian-supplied missiles stored near the Syrian capital on Friday and Sunday that were awaiting transfer to Hezbollah guerrilla group in neighboring Lebanon.

Syria accused Israel of belligerence meant to shore up the outgunned anti-Assad rebels – drawing a denial on Monday from veteran Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interviewed on Israel Radio, Hanegbi said the Netanyahu government aimed to avoid “an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime”.

Hanegbi noted Israel had not formally acknowledged carrying out the raids in an effort to allow Assad to save face, adding that Netanyahu began a scheduled visit to China on Sunday to signal the sense of business as usual.

“DIPLOMATIC CHANNELS”

The Assad government has condemned the air strikes as tantamount to a “declaration of war” and threatened unspecified retaliation.

But Hanegbi said Israel was ready for any development if the Syrians misinterpreted its messages and was ready “to respond harshly if indeed there is aggression against us”.

As a precaution, Israel deployed two of its five Iron Dome rocket interceptors near the Syrian and Lebanese fronts and grounded civilian aircraft in the area, although an Israeli military spokesman said the airspace would reopen on Monday.

Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, said the Netanyahu government had informed Assad through diplomatic channels that it did not intend to meddle in Syria's civil war.

Israeli officials did not immediately confirm the report, but one suggested that such indirect contacts were not required.

“Given the public remarks being made by senior Israeli figures to reassure Assad, it's pretty clear what the message is,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Military analysts say Syria would be no match for Israel, a U.S. defense ally, in any confrontation. But Damascus, with its leverage over Hezbollah, could still consider proxy attacks through Lebanon, where Israel's conventional forces fought an inconclusive war against the Iranian-backed guerrillas in 2006.

Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi'ite Islam, denied Israel's attack was on arms. Shi'ite Hezbollah did not comment.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle

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