Although Tehran doesn't want 'major conflict with Israel'

US intel chief: Iran will likely strike back if Israel keeps attacking in Syria

In report to Congress, US director of national intelligence warns Islamic Republic undeterred from establishing ‘network’ of Shiite militias in Syria

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Trails left by the Iron Dome air defense system intercepting a Syrian projectile over Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, on January 20, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
Trails left by the Iron Dome air defense system intercepting a Syrian projectile over Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, on January 20, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The top US intelligence official warned Tuesday that Iran was likely to attack Israel if the Jewish state continued to bomb the Islamic Republic’s military forces in Syria, despite Tehran not desiring a direct confrontation in the immediate future.

“We assess that Iran seeks to avoid a major armed conflict with Israel. However, Israeli strikes that result in Iranian casualties increase the likelihood of Iranian conventional retaliation against Israel,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Coats was presenting the views of the US Intelligence Community — made up of 16 American intelligence services — to the congressional committee as part of the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment.

This analysis by US intelligence services echoed similar concerns voiced within Israel about the increasing likelihood of an Iranian response to the Israel Defense Forces’ regular strikes in Syria.

Dan Coats, right, at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 29, 2019. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

President Reuven Rivlin, speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, also warned that Iran was likely to “intensify its responses” to Israeli strikes against its forces in Syria.

Satellite images released by the IDF of what it says are Iranian facilities inside a Syrian army base near Damascus, which were destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on January 21, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, fearing it will serve as another front from which the Islamic Republic can threaten the Jewish state.

In order to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria, the IDF has conducted hundreds of strikes against Tehran’s forces in the country, Israeli officials have said.

According to the assessments of the US intelligence services, these air raids, however, have not deterred Iran.

“Iran continues to pursue permanent military bases and economic deals in Syria and probably wants to maintain a network of Shia foreign fighters there despite Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria,” Coats said.

In general, the Israeli strikes have focused on destroying Iranian infrastructure in Syria — bases, vehicles and weapons — and not personnel, former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot said in an interview shortly before the end of his tenure.

In the assessment, the US director of national intelligence said if Israeli strikes kill more Iranian troops — as reportedly occurred earlier this month — the Islamic Republic is more likely to retaliate forcefully.

A photo provided by the pro-regime Syrian Central Military Media, shows anti-aircraft fire rise into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases around Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018, after the Israeli military says Iranian forces launched a rocket barrage against Israeli bases on the Golan Heights, in the most serious military confrontation between the two bitter enemies to date. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

Coats cited as evidence the Iranian attack on the Golan Heights in May 2018, one month after a deadly Israeli strike on the T-4 air base in Syria, which the IDF maintained was being used by Iran, that killed at least seven Iranian soldiers.

In recent months, senior Israeli officials have begun claiming near victory over Iran in Syria, saying that the IDF raids have prevented Iran from establishing a 100,000-member fighting force that it had planned to form along Syria’s border with Israel.

The American assessment presented by Coats on Tuesday appeared to contradict this Israeli view, warning that Iran was not giving up its efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.

Also on Tuesday, CIA chief Gina Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran was still abiding by the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal despite the US pullout from the multinational agreement.

“At the moment technically they are in compliance” with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I think the most recent information is the Iranians are considering taking steps that would lessen their adherence to JCPOA as they seek to pressure the European to come through with the investment and trade benefits that Iran hoped to gain from the deal,” she said.

Gina Haspel, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) testifies on Worldwide Threats during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 29, 2019. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Israel and the US have been pushing Europe to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic and to strictly enforce the ones already in place on Iran for other non-nuclear nefarious activities.

But, as a number of European companies have pulled out under pressure from US sanctions, those countries have backed an EU effort to set up a special payment system in an attempt to continue trade and business ties with Iran.

AFP contributed to this report.

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