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Iran's spies watching us, says Israel

Con Coughlin / London Telegraph | April 4 2006

Iran has set up a sophisticated intelligence gathering operation in southern Lebanon to identify targets in northern Israel in the event of a military confrontation over its controversial nuclear programme.

Senior Israeli military commanders say Iran has spent tens of millions of pounds helping its close ally, Hizbollah, the Shia Muslim militant group that controls southern Lebanon, to set up a network of control towers and monitoring stations along the entire length of Israel's border with south Lebanon.

Some of the new control towers, which are made of reinforced concrete and fitted with bullet-proof reflective glass, are less than 100 yards from Israeli army positions and are clearly visible for long stretches along Israel's border.

"This is now Iran's front line with Israel," a senior Israeli military commander said. "The Iranians are using Hizbollah to spy on us so that they can collect information for future attacks. And there is very little we can do about it."

The Israeli military has reported a significant increase in Hizbollah activity in southern Lebanon since Syria came under intense international pressure to withdraw its forces from the area last year following the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Israeli military officers report that teams of Iran's Revolutionary Guards travel regularly to southern Lebanon to help train local Hizbollah fighters in terrorist tactics. Tensions between Iran and Israel have intensified dramatically since the election last summer of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's new leader. Israel has repeatedly threatened to take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and the new Iranian government has responded by calling for Israel's destruction.

Senior Israeli military officers believe Iran is deliberately exploiting the power vacuum caused by Syria's withdrawal to intensify pressure on Israel's northern border.

Hizbollah is aware that Israel is keen to maintain friendly relations with the new government in Lebanon and believes it can act freely in southern Lebanon without provoking retaliatory strikes from Israel.

Officers report a sharp increase in border incidents between Hizbollah fighters and Israeli units on the northern border, with the main flash points located at the disputed Druze village of Ghajar, which is divided by the border between Israel and Lebanon, and Mount Dov, which Hizbollah also claims should be part of Lebanon.

The situation is now regarded as so serious that many senior Israeli officers openly admit to missing the restraining influence of Syria over Hizbollah.

"When the Syrians were in Lebanon it was easy for us to control Hizbollah," said an officer with Israel's northern command. "If things got too tense we could put pressure on Damascus and the Syrians would act quickly to calm things down."

Although the Lebanese government technically controls the border area, its military is not considered strong enough to control Hizbollah, which takes its orders directly from Teheran.

"Iran is playing a very dangerous game of cat and mouse on our northern border and it could easily spiral out of control at any moment," said the officer.

In recent weeks Hizbollah sent unmanned aircraft on reconnaissance missions over the border to photograph sensitive Israeli military installations. The spy planes returned to base before being detected by air defence systems.

In addition to providing intelligence-gathering and communications equipment, Iran has also equipped Hizbollah with improved weapons and ammunition to launch attacks against Israel, including heavy mortars and rockets with a range of up to 30 miles.

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