Military Intelligence chief Major-General Aviv Kochavi said Tuesday Iranian influence was growing in Middle Eastern countries experiencing unrest or upheaval – such as Egypt and Syria.
"Assad understands today that his solution cannot only come from military responses, and that is why he is turning to reform," Kochavi told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, referring to the protest-plagued president of Syria.
In Egypt, meanwhile, Tehran is trying to influence the outcomes of elections by tightening relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, the MI chief added.
"We must not belittle the reform package Assad has begun to promote. These reforms regard the improvement of wages, subsidies, and the opening up of more jobs," Kochavi said.
He added that Bashar Assad's army has so far remained loyal because soldiers have retained the belief that the suppression of protests is a legitimate way to prevent total rioting.
MI chief Koachavi in Knesset (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
"There is no desertion from the army," he said. "Only 20-30 officers have deserted so far." But a significant change in regime will "weaken the radical axis considerably", Kochavi explained.
He added that Russia, concerned over losing its influence in Syria, was attempting to stabilize Assad's regime. Iran and Hezbollah are also concerned the president may fall, prompting Iran to "intervene profoundly in order to take the riots down a notch". But Iran's influence is mostly through "transfer of knowledge and means", not combative forces, Kochavi said.
"Iran and Hezbollah's motivation to assist (Syria) stems from its profound fear of the repercussions and mainly of losing the partnership with Syria and possible leakage (into the Islamic Republic)."
The MI chief noted that Iran also played a direct role in events on Israel's border. "Iran acted directly in Lebanon in organizing 'Nakba Day' and 'Naksa Day'. It is working to make sure these acts of protest will continue."
Kochavi is also concerned over the transfer of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. "We are concerned Syrian weapons are being transferred to Hezbollah or other agents in Syria. At the beginning of the riots two bases in Syria were broken into and light weapons were stolen," he said.
He also called the protests in Syria "contagious", causing "the people to be more daring and the regime less daring".
But even if a democracy does emerge in Syria, Kochavi explained, it will take years and even then is most likely to be "light democracy".
Kochavi also discussed the relations between Tehran and Ankara, saying Iran was tightening ties with both Egypt – through the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood – and Turkey.
He also addressed the threat of its nuclear program. "Iran is currently running 5,000 active centrifuges, and means to reach 8,000. Up until now it has accumulated uranium enriched to a level of 3.5, at a weight of 4,300 kg," he said.
"Iran is capable of building a nuclear warhead within a short time. It has succeeded in recovering from the last wave of sanctions, despite the fact that international agreement on the sanctions in the last round surprised it."