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Israel's defense chief goes to Russia. Is a deal to neuter Iran in the works?

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Israel's defense chief goes to Russia. Is a deal to neuter Iran in the works?

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Jalaa Marey
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Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was due to fly to Russia Wednesday amid reports the countries were finalizing a deal which would push Iran-backed forces away from Israel's border with Syria.

The pact reportedly being negotiated was part of an effort to prevent Iran-Israel tensions from spiraling into outright war. Russia and Iran have been helping the military of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to crush a seven-year insurgency.

Israel has become increasingly alarmed about the influence of Iran and Tehran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah in Syria. Iran denies it is setting up permanent bases in Syria but has been building up its forces there.

According to Israel's Channel 2, the agreement would OK the presence of Syrian soldiers up to the border with Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, removing Iranian and Hezbollah forces from there. Russia would accept that Israel would maintain "its freedom of action against Iranian consolidation in all of Syria."

NBC News has not been able to independently confirm the reports.

Israel has struck inside Syria more than 100 times since 2012, with most targets being suspected weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah, which has been engaged in battles alongside Syrian government forces.

If successful, the pact would be an "important step" toward reducing tensions between Israel and Iran, according to Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center and an associate with the Iran Project at Harvard University.

"The Russians do not want the Iranians to become too powerful in post-ISIS Syria," he said, referring to the multi-national effort to crush the extremists that captured swaths of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

In addition, Fathollah-Nejad said Israel is worried about "a permanent Iranian military presence across the Israeli border. … Against this background it makes sense that Israel and Russia find an agreement that they won't both accept an Iranian presence on the Israeli-Syrian border."

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces from Syria's de-escalation zones along Syria's southwestern border brokered November should happen "as soon as possible."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Sergei Karpukhin

Rebels control stretches of southwest Syria bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which have been held by Israel since the 1967 Mideast war, while Syrian army troops and allied Iran-backed militias also holding nearby territory.

But Jonathan Eyal, an expert on Russia at London's Russia think tank, cautioned against expecting a Russia-Israel deal would successfully force Iranians out of much of Syria.

"I think [Moscow] has much less influence over Iran than the Russians would like us to believe," he said. "So I believe this deal that this touted is much more in theory than in practice."

And even if a deal is signed, an agreement to push Iranian forces and Hezbollah back from the border may not be enough for Israel in the long run.

"When you consider the advanced weapon systems — surface-to-surface missiles and anti-aircraft systems — that the Iranians want to deploy in Syria, it becomes clear that they must be prevented from doing so in all of Syria and not only within a limited distance from the Israeli border," Chagai Tzuriel, the director-general of Israel's intelligence ministry, told Reuters on Monday.

F. Brinley Bruton reported from London, and Paul Goldman and Lawahez Jabari from Tel Aviv.