Iran's ability to retaliate for any Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities has been "dramatically" reduced by the disintegration of President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, an Israeli intelligence report has said.
By Robert Tait, Gaza City and Damien McElroy
This assessment, from the intelligence department of Israel's foreign ministry, predicts that Syria's army would not join its Iranian ally in a war against Israel because of the 21-month uprising.
Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement armed and funded by Iran's regime, would face an acute dilemma over whether to intervene.
Iran has supplied Hizbollah with about 50,000 rockets and missiles, all targeted on Israel with the aim of retaliating for any assault on the nuclear plants. But these weapons reached Hizbollah using Syrian territory. If those supply lines were severed either by Mr Assad's downfall or continuing civil war in Syria, Hizbollah might be unable to replace any rockets that were fired.
Iran's presumed ability to use Hizbollah as to strike back over Israel's northern border has been cited as an important factor deterring any Israeli attack. But the report, presented to Israeli ambassadors in Jerusalem this week, suggests that Syria's crisis has constrained Hizbollah's options.
"Iran's ability to strike Israel, in response to a strike of ours, has gone down dramatically," the newspaper Maariv quoted an official as saying. "The Iranian response will be far more insignificant than previously anticipated had the northern front continued to exist."
The foreign ministry report also predicted that Egypt would stop Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, from helping Iran by launching rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, acknowledged on Thursday the pressure his organisation was under, warning that Syria was heading for collapse into separate "emirates" or religious fiefdoms. "We fundamentally and ideologically reject any form of partition or division of any Arab or Islamic country," he said.
But experts said the Israeli assessment was excessively rosy. "Hizbollah will strike back with everything it has because if it doesn't, it will lose Iran's financial support," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran specialist at the Inter-Disciplinary Centre in Herzliya, an Israeli university.