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KAHLILI: Syrian crisis signals Iranian vulnerability

Heightened pressure could unplug the nuclear threat

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Shortly after Israeli warplanes struck inside Syria to take out Iranian missiles intended for Hezbollah, Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi said, "The attack carried out by the Zionist regime will shorten this fake regime's life."

Gen. Vahidi is wrong about that, but only if the West has the resolve to help bring down the brutal clerical regime in Tehran before it acquires nuclear weapons.

Ever since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011 with demonstrations against the brutal regime of Bashar Assad, Iranian officials have warned that Syria is their red line.

Just two months into the uprising, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei held an emergency meeting in Tehran with commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, representatives of the Syrian Embassy, members of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and leaders of Iraq's Sadr movement. The supreme leader demanded of the group that all operational and logistical forces be applied in order to stamp out the "blaze of sedition" in Syria and to destroy those who are "enemies of God" in that country.

As the uprising mushroomed into an all-out civil war, the Islamic regime, through its Quds Force and Revolutionary Guard, along with Hezbollah, reinforced the Syrian army as it massacred its own people, gathered intelligence on the rebels and devised plans to retaliate against America and Israel, thinking they were behind the effort to oust Mr. Assad.

In that pursuit, Ayatollah Khamenei sent a letter to the Obama administration in June 2011 filled with threats to American officials. The letter, which is said to have been delivered by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, accused the United States of meddling in Syrian affairs and ordered the U.S. to cease and desist in pressuring the Syrian regime leadership, cautioning that Iran will retaliate against America.

As I reported a year ago, a war room was established among Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. If the United States or another NATO country attacked Syria, then those Middle Eastern allies would fire hundreds of missiles toward American assets in the region and at Israel to widen the conflict.

According to a source within the Iranian intelligence apparatus, there is now little hope that the Assad regime can be saved, hence the order for rapid shipment of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah. By reinforcing its arsenal, Hezbollah can strike all of Israel and, as a last resort, engage Israel from within Syria, further complicating the situation in the Middle East.

Israel, worried about the disintegration of Syria and the further arming of Hezbollah, has warned continuously that giving "game-changing" weapons to Hezbollah is its red line.

Israel's May 5 attack, the second in two days on a military site on the outskirts of Damascus, targeted a shipment of Fateh-110 missiles, which can reach almost anywhere in Israel with precision. Such weaponry would constitute a "game-changer" if it reached Hezbollah. A similar bombing in January by Israeli jets targeted other shipments to Hezbollah.

Despite the open threats against Israel, the same intelligence source said, regime officials have no intention of engaging the Jewish state directly unless America launches a direct attack against Syria or if there is an attack on Iran. In fact, he said, Iranian officials are worried about Israel attacking their nuclear facilities as they seek to create a nuclear-armed state that would be untouchable at that point.

However, Iranians have devised several plans to engage Israel through their forces in Syria and their proxies such as Hezbollah to draw the Jewish state into a wider conflict should Israel continue its attacks.

The source added that the regime also has devised plans for terrorist attacks against Israel, the U.S. homeland and their interests around the world as a warning to leave Syria alone. The fall of Mr. Assad, they think, would be a culmination of an effort to target the clerical regime in Iran.

Iran is facing deep troubles at home. International sanctions over its illicit nuclear program have pushed its economy into an uncontrollable spiral of inflation and unemployment to the level where members of the working class are having a hard time feeding themselves. Riots have broken out and, with the presidential election in June, different political factions are fighting among themselves. Fearing another uprising, the regime's only goal is to maintain control.

The covert operations on both sides — Iran through terrorism and Israel by military action — are sure to escalate. Reports of explosions in Tehran at a military base thought to be the storage center of the regime's ballistic missiles is yet another sign of this escalation. There is a history of similar explosions along with assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.

The brutal clerical regime in Iran is on the defensive, making this a time to push further for the fall of Mr. Assad and to increase sanctions and pressure against the Tehran regime. Once and for all, we must remove the masters of worldwide terrorism before they become nuclear-armed, which would indeed be a game-changer — with the world as its hostage.

Reza Kahlili is a pseudonym for a former CIA operative in Iran's Revolutionary Guard and author of the award-winning book "A Time to Betray" (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

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