Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander said for the first time yesterday that members of its Quds Force are in Syria providing support to the Assad regime, and warned Israel and the United States against any attack on the Islamic republic's nuclear facilities.
On a day of robust rhetoric and rising tensions, Israel's prime minister warned that Iran would be on the brink of nuclear weapons capability in six to seven months.
Benjamin Netanyahu again urged Washington to spell out limits that Tehran must not cross or else face military action.
Taking his case to the American public in US television interviews, Mr Netanyahu said a policy of containment would not work because Tehran is guided by a "leadership of fanaticism". Barack Obama, the US president, has rebuffed Israeli pressure to set such "red lines", insisting there is still time for diplomacy and sanctions to rein in Iran's nuclear programme.
The top commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari, warned that "nothing of Israel would be left" if its jets or missiles struck Iran. However, Tehran has no intention of launching a pre-emptive strike against Israel, he said.
In a rare and wide-ranging news conference in Tehran, Gen Jafari said an unspecified number of officials from the Quds Force - the Revolutionary Guards' shadowy special forces unit that carries out missions abroad - are providing "intellectual and advisory" assistance in Syria.
Tehran was "proud of defending Syria", a part of the anti-Israeli "resistance", he said.
"This does not mean that we have a military presence in Syria," he said, but he warned that would change if its strategic ally came under foreign attack. In that case, "Iran would also give military support but it … totally depends on the circumstances".
Gen Jafari dismissed Israeli threats of an attack on Iran, and said Israel - the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear-armed power — was having trouble persuading the US to back its position. But in the event of "such actions by the Zionist regime, nothing of Israel would remain".
US military bases - such as those in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - would equally be considered fair game, he said. "The US has many vulnerabilities around Iran, and its bases are within range of the Guards' missiles," Gen Jafari said.
Susan Rice, the UN ambassador of the United States, said yesterday there is "no daylight" between the US and Israel and that the United States "will do what it takes" to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But, she told CNN, "we are not at that stage yet".
"Our bottom line - if you want to call it a red line - the president's bottom line has been that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon, and we will take no option off the table to ensure that it does not acquire a nuclear weapon, including military," Ms Rice later told NBC's Meet the Press.
"Their economy is beginning to buckle. Their oil production is down 40 per cent. Their currency has plummeted 40 per cent in the past year," she said.
If attacked, Gen Jafari added, Iran would disrupt trade in the Strait of Hormuz, the jugular vein for global oil exports at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf.
Gen Jafari also said that if Iran were attacked, it may leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under whose terms UN inspectors visit Iranian nuclear sites. But this "would not mean a dash towards a nuclear bomb because we have a religious edict from the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]" against atomic weapons, he said.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse