Iran commands a force of up to 25,000 Shiite Muslim militants fighting in the Syrian civil war, a majority of them from Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, who now chairs the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
In a briefing with a delegation from the Swiss parliament, Dichter, a Likud MK, also echoed warnings issued previously by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials who have said that Iran has not abandoned its aspirations to develop nuclear weapons and was playing a long game with the West, despite the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal with western powers.
Iran, he added, “has not abandoned the idea [of pursuing] nuclear weapons. It only put it on hold so it can recover [from sanctions] and rehabilitate its international image.”
Tehran and six world powers signed the accord last summer aimed at reining in Iran’s controversial atomic program in exchange for lifting punishing international sanctions. A number of regional Sunni states opposed the agreement, as has Israel, warning that Iran was simply playing for time.
“Up until a year and a half ago, Iran was the reason for regional instability. It’s amazing and sad to see how among Western states, it is now perceived as a stabilizing force,” Dichter said.
Dichter also warned of Iran’s global aspirations as a Mideast power, explaining that the Islamic Republic’s “dream is to control Islam’s holiest sites — Mecca and Medina.”
“We have to ask ourselves, why are the Iranians developing missiles that can reach targets 2,000 km away, more than twice the distance [from Iran] to Israel? Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also in their cross-hairs. Some 2,000 years ago, Iran was an empire and it wants to become one again,” he said.
In Syria, Dichter said the “foreign legion” of 25,000 was sent to fight Sunni rebels opposed to Iranian ally President Bashar Assad, and not only against the Islamic State terror group.
Dichter said that fighters from Iranian proxy Hezbollah were dispatched to Syria because the Lebanese terror group’s militants were more suited to guerrilla warfare and to fighting against terrorist organizations, unlike soldiers from the Iranian military who are versed in fighting other armies.
But, he warned, more than five years of fighting in Syria has strengthened Hezbollah’s abilities and training, turning it into a “more established and military-like” fighting force, despite its losses — some 1,600 according to Dichter — in the war.
Amid a spate of terror attacks in Europe over the past two years, perpetrated by terror cells linked to the Islamic State or an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria and often consisting of Muslim men who left their European birth countries to fight in Syria, Dichter insisted Europe must act to prevent foreign fighters from returning to the continent.
“Those who go to Iraq or Syria, it’s not to attend a Bob Dylan performance, and European security services must operate accordingly,” he told the delegation.