Putin floated deal to remove Iran from Syria for sanctions relief — TV report

PM reportedly tells Knesset committee that Russian president said Moscow could push Tehran out, but only if Washington eases up on penalties levied after nuke deal pullout

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements, after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements, after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader's Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a deal to Israel and the US that would see Iran remove its forces from Syria in exchange for an easing of Washington’s sanctions against Tehran, according to an Israeli report Tuesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu divulged the offer during a closed session of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, Channel 10 news reported.

In the past, Russia has repeatedly asserted that it cannot force Iran and its proxies to withdraw from Syria in its entirety. Moscow has worked to convince Iranian forces to withdraw to at least 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Israeli border, but Israel has insisted that no Iranian troops be permitted anywhere in the war-torn country.

The report did not specify when Putin made the offer to Netanyahu to broker such a deal, but the pair did speak briefly on the sidelines of the Paris Peace Forum last week.

While Netanyahu spoke optimistically of his recent meetings with the Russian president and US Special Envoy on Syria James Jeffery, he told the Knesset committee that Putin’s proposal was only a preliminary idea and that Israel has yet to determine a position on the matter.

Iran’s army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking into binoculars, and other senior officers from the Iranian military, visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, on October 20, 2017. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP, File)

Asked for comment on the Channel 10 report, a senior US State Department official said, “We continue negotiations with the UN and other parties to promote a political solution in Syria. We do not detail the content of these diplomatic talks.”

The report came amid lingering tensions between Israel and Russia over the downing of a Russian military plane by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli strike on Iranian targets in Syria in September.

Russia blamed Israel for the downing of the plane — a charge rejected by Jerusalem — and sent advanced S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Syria in the wake of the incident, in which 15 Russian servicemen were killed. Israel has also rebuffed a Russian claim its jets hid behind the Russian reconnaissance aircraft.

But Netanyahu last month told Russia his country must continue to hit hostile targets in Syria to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence across the border.

Israel has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria and has repeatedly struck Iranian bases in airstrikes, seeking to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Israel has also extensively lobbied Washington and Moscow, a key ally of Syria and Iran, to ensure Iranian forces and Iranian-backed militias are kept as far away from the Israeli border as possible.

On Tuesday, outgoing IDF chief Gadi Eizenkot said Iran’s foothold in Syria was far from what Tehran wanted it to be, thanks to Israeli military efforts.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration reinstated all US sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal.

The sanctions were the second batch that the Trump administration has reimposed on the Islamic Republic since it withdrew from the nuclear agreement earlier this year. The rollback ends US participation in the Obama-era accord, which now hangs in the balance as Iran no longer enjoys the billions of dollars in sanctions relief it was granted under the deal in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Israel, which considers Iran an existential threat and opposed the deal from the beginning, broadly welcomed the US’s exit from the deal and the reimposition of sanctions.

Iran is already in the grip of an economic crisis. Its rial currency lost more than two-thirds of its value since May and now trades at 145,000 to one US dollar, down from 40,500 to $1 a year ago.

US President Donald Trump (L) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shake hands before attending a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. (AFP Photo/Yuri Kadobnov)

Iranian oil exports have fallen by about a million barrels in that time, though India and China have continued to purchase it. Most Europeans, as well as Japan and South Korea, have stopped.

The economic chaos sparked mass anti-government protests at the end of last year that resulted in nearly 5,000 reported arrests and at least 25 people being killed.

Iran’s already-anemic economy is likely to suffer more under the fresh US embargo, though politicians and protesters struck a defiant tone.

Agencies contributed to this report

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