Iran has pledged to provide Syria with $US1 billion ($1.13billion) for arms acquisitions in return for a pledge from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to drop peace overtures to Israel, reports said yesterday.
Citing an Iranian source, the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mr Assad signed the arms agreement at a meeting in Damascus last Thursday.
The report said that Iran agreed to assist Syria in developing a nuclear research program — a detail Israeli commentators were sceptical about — and to advance its chemical weapons potential.
The Iranian leader’s visit to Damascus came two days after Mr Assad publicly called for peace negotiations with Israel. The mooted peace accord revolves around the return of the Golan Heights — captured by Israel in 1967 — to Syria.
Israeli political figures at the weekend expressed alarm at the reported Syrian-Iranian pact. Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman said: “The strengthening of the relationship between Assad and Ahmadinejad demands that Israel reorganise its political and military strategies.”
He called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to consider formation of a national unity government embracing opposition parties.
Knesset member Arye Eldad said the reported Damascus agreement was reminiscent of agreements signed by Arab states with each other on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War.
“This will lead to attacks on Israel from Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Iran,” said Mr Eldad, a member of the foreign affairs and defence committee.
An official in Mr Olmert’s office yesterday expressed reservations about the newspaper account.
“We are doubtful about the credibility of the report in al-Sharq al-Awsat,” he said.
The official said Israel was attempting to learn through its own sources the purpose and actual results of the Damascus meeting.
But he said the fact that the meeting with Mr Ahmadinejad took place despite Israel’s declared readiness for talks with Mr Assad showed that the Syrian leader was still aligned with “the axis of evil”.
During his day-long visit, Mr Ahmadinejad also met Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups funded by Iran.
An Israeli military analyst, General Giora Eiland, said that Mr Assad’s intention was apparently to signal in two directions. “He’s saying, I want peace but if I can’t get it I have a military option.”
The newspaper report said that Iran had agreed to fund the purchase by Syria of 400 Russian T-72 tanks, 18 MiG-31 warplanes, eight Sukhoi fighters, helicopters and other equipment.
Iran also agreed to help Syria build factories for missiles and to provide it with Iranian-made tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
In addition, the newspaper said that Iran agreed to support Syria’s political objectives in Lebanon, including the toppling of the moderate Government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
During his visit to Damascus, Mr Ahmadinejad declared that his country and Syria “will remain allies”.
But he did not speak publicly about a new agreement.
Asked at a press conference whether he expected this northern summer to be “hot” like last summer, which witnessed a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, he said: “We hope the summer will bring victories to the region’s nations and failure to their enemies.”
Ephraim Sneh, who served as deputy Israeli defence minister until last month, said that moderate Arab states share Israel’s worries over efforts by Iran — a Muslim but non-Arab country — to spread its influence far beyond its borders through political-military pacts, including with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
It was precisely because of this, he said, that the Arab League was this week for the first time sending a delegation — including the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan — to Jerusalem to discuss with Israeli officials the league’s proposal for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement.
“This is a signal from Arab moderates who are as concerned as we are at Iranian aggression,” Mr Sneh said. To encourage the moderates, he said, Israel had to engage in serious talks with the Palestinians.
Mr Olmert at the weekend reiterated his call for peace talks with Syria.