Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami on Monday charged that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was keeping the Middle East in a perpetual state of conflict in order to damage the Iranian economy.
Hatami also said Israel’s threats to strike Iranian targets were empty, during an interview with the Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV station, in which he confirmed earlier reports that Iran had signed a deal to rebuild Syria’s military.
“I think that Netanyahu is maintaining a tense atmosphere in the region to have an economic impact on the Islamic Republic,” he said, according to a translation by Channel 10 news.
“Knowing our capabilities, I think Netanyahu’s threats to attack Iranian forces in Syria are far from reality,” Hatami added, citing Iran’s air defenses.
Adding a threat of his own, Hatami said “the Syrian government has the right to respond to any aggression against it, as has happened in the past. Syria’s allies are ready to respond to any aggression.”
During the wide-ranging interview, the Iranian minister said his country had earlier in the day signed a deal with Damascus to rebuild the Syrian armed forces that have been battered by years of war, seemingly pushing back against US and Russian attempts to force Iranian troops out of the country.
Hatami said the agreement included the rehabilitation of Syria’s defensee industry and assured Iran would provide “good service.”
“With this accord, we have paved the way for a reconstruction of the Syrian military industries,” he said.
“The most important element of the deal is the rebuilding of the Syrian armed forces and defense industries so that they can regain their full capacity.”
Iran has been an essential backer of Syria’s government in the civil war now in its seventh year, providing advisers, military supplies, training and thousands of militiamen to fight alongside the Syrian army.
Hatami justified the Iranian forces’ presence in Syria by saying it was at the invitation of its government.
Iran’s Tasnim news agency earlier reported that the defense agreement was signed after Hatami met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Defense Minister General Ali Abdullah Ayoub.
At the meeting, the Syrian president told the Iranian defense minister that cooperation between the two countries was important in light of the US pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran, imposing sanctions on Russia and “supporting terrorist organizations.”
“Syria is moving out of crisis and entering the reconstruction phase,” said Hatami at the meeting, also noting that the agreement will set the parameters for defense cooperation between the two countries.
Tehran has provided steady political, financial and military backing to Assad as he fought back a seven-year uprising. Israel has expressed concerns that forces loyal to Tehran are establishing a permanent presence in Syria that can be used to attack Israel, and has carried out dozens of airstrikes on Iranian army installations in the war-torn country in recent months.
As the civil war apparently draws to a close, officials in the US and reportedly Russia have looked to keep Iran’s military from entrenching itself in Syria, especially in the Golan Heights, at Israel’s urging.
Last week, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said in Jerusalem that Russian President Vladimir Putin told the United States that his country would like Iranian forces to withdraw from Syria but claimed they cannot force them out.
Most analysts believe even with US and Russian support, forcing Iran out of Syria will be nearly impossible.
The two countries have had strong ties for years. Iran has dispatched military forces to Syria, but insists they are advisers, not fighters. Iran-backed militias, including the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah movement, have also backed Assad’s troops in fighting on Syrian soil.
Since it erupted in 2011, Syria’s war has cost it approximately $388 billion, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).
Assad last month said reconstruction was his “top priority” in Syria, where at least 350,000 people have been killed, though some estimates are much higher, and many millions were forced to flee their homes.
World powers who have long called for Assad’s ouster insist reconstruction aid should only come with political transition, but regime ally Russia is pressing them to provide support.
With help from Iranian militias and Russian warplanes, Assad has recaptured around two-thirds of the country and is now eyeing the northwest province of Idlib.