Rejecting Israeli claims that Iran is seeking to entrench itself militarily in Syria, the country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, insisted on Monday that there were no Iranian military bases in the war-torn country.
Responding to a reporter’s question on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, he told reporters, “No, we do not have them [in Syria].”
Zarif said that while Iran does send military advisers to Syria, it has not deployed Iranian soldiers for combat there.
His statement contradicts Israeli political and military assessments that Tehran, which has shored up President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, has been working to create air and naval bases in Syria from which it can arm the Lebanon-based terror organization Hezbollah and other Shiite groups, as well as carry out attacks of its own against the Jewish state.
In November, Israeli satellite photos appeared to strengthen a BBC report that Iran was building a permanent military base in Syria, just 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Israel’s northern border.
The ImageSat International pictures, published by Hadashot News, showed that renovations and alterations had been recently undertaken at the site at al-Kiswah, some 13 kilometers (8 miles) south of the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Earlier in February, an Iranian drone piloted by an Iranian operator entered northern Israeli airspace near the Jordanian border, prompting a series of Israeli airstrikes including, for the first time, against Iranian military sites inside Syria, the Israel Defense Forces said.
The drone was shot down by an Apache attack helicopter, according to the IDF, and Israeli jets conducted reprisal raids against military positions in Syria.
During the raids, one F-16 was downed by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile, and crashed in northern Israel, after its pilot ejected. The pilot was seriously wounded, but has since been released from the hospital.
A second round of strikes by the Israel Air Force targeted among other things, four Iranian positions in Syria, including the mobile command center from which the drone was operated on the T-4 air base outside the Syrian city of Palmyra, which has been under Iranian control for months, an Israeli military official said.
According to rebel forces, both Syrian and Iranian troops were killed in the IAF strikes.
Afterward, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an English video message that the events had proved Israel’s claims regarding Iran’s intentions.
“This morning, Iran brazenly violated Israel’s sovereignty. They dispatched an Iranian drone from Syrian territory into Israel,” he said. “And this demonstrates that our warnings were 100 percent correct.”
During a speech on Sunday, he produced a chunk of the drone and warned that Israel could strike the Islamic Republic directly.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Netanyahu turned to Zarif, who was also in attendance, and said, “Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? You should, it’s yours. You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran — do not test Israel’s resolve!”
The Iranians, for their part, have denied Israel’s claims, saying that the drone was flying inside Syria as part of a reconnaissance mission targeting jihadist groups in the country.
Responding to Netanyahu on Monday, Zarif accused Israel of violating Syria’s air space and asserted Iran’s right to defend itself.