Israel fears 'Iranian crescent' in Middle East

Iran's support for Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which also backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, concerns Israel (AFP Photo/MAHMOUD ZAYYAT) (AFP/File)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel fears an "Iranian crescent" may be forming in the Middle East because of Tehran's influence in Syria and its connections with regional Shiite groups, an intelligence official said Monday.

The comments from Chagai Tzuriel, director general of Israel's intelligence ministry, illustrate his country's growing concerns over its arch-foe Iran's involvement in the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Iran's support for Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which also backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, also concerns Israel, as does Tehran's influence in Iraq and its support for groups such as the Huthi rebels in Yemen.

"I think that... Israel believes that if Iran bases itself for the long run in Syria it will be a constant source of friction and tension with the Sunni majority in Syria, with the Sunni countries outside Syria, with Sunni minorities outside the region, with Israel," Tzuriel told foreign reporters.

"And I think that may be only the tip of the iceberg," he added. "We're talking here about the creation of an Iranian crescent."

Part of it, he said, involved worries that Iran could complete a "land bridge" through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean.

Israel has sought to avoid being dragged into the six-year Syrian conflict, but has acknowledged carrying out strikes to stop advanced weapons deliveries to Hezbollah, with whom it fought a devastating war in 2006.

Last month, in the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syria war began, Israeli warplanes struck several targets there, drawing retaliatory missile fire.

Israel used its Arrow interceptor to destroy what was believed to have been a Russian-made SA 5 missile, and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syria's air defence systems "without the slightest hesitation" if it happened again.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held a series of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent months on how to avoid accidental clashes in Syria.

A "hotline" has been set up between the two countries, but Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz has said Moscow is not notified in advance of an Israeli strike.

Russia backs Assad in Syria, but Israeli officials say they are confident they can continue to coordinate with Moscow despite their differing interests.