TEHRAN,Iran (AP) - Iran's president on Thursday said that if the Israelis launch a new war against Lebanon's Hezbollah, the militant group should retaliate strong enough to "close their case once and for all."
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments, in a conversation with Hezbollah's leader, were the latest in a heated exchange of rhetoric between Israel and Lebanon and Syria this months in which all sides have been warning the other not to start a war.
Speaking by phone, Ahmadinejad urged Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to prepare his fighters to be able to retaliate strongly against any Israeli attack.
"The preparations should be of the level that, if they (the Israelis) want to repeated the mistakes of the past (by attacking), then their case should be closed once and for all and the region delivered from their evil ways forever," the Iranian president said, according to the state news agency IRNA.
"The people of Iran will stand by the peoples of Lebanon and the region in this," he said. Nasrallah dismissed any fears, saying Israeli "threats will lead to nothing."
Iran is a key supporter of Hezbollah, believed to funnel it weapons and millions of dollars in funding, though Tehran denies arming the Shiite group. Hezbollah, also closely allied to Syria, boasts a heavy arsenal of rockets capable of reaching deep inside Israel.
The past month has seen increased sabre-rattling between Israel and Syria, Hezbollah and Lebanon - though there's been little apparent cause on the ground for the warningsof new war. Hezbollah and Israel fought a monthlong war in 2006 that wreaked destruction in south Lebanon and parts of Beirut. But since then, Hezbollah has refrained from firing rockets across the border.
In a speech aired nationally in Lebanon this week, Nasrallah vowed that if Israel attacks again, his fighters would retaliate in kind, striking Tel Aviv or Israel's international airport on the city's outskirts.
Lebanon's prime minister also warned of "escalating" Israeli war threats and vowed Lebanon would support Hezbollah in any fight. The prime minister, Saad Hariri, is a pro-U.S. figure and longtime rival of Hezbollah, but the group is now a member of his national unity government.
Earlier in the month, Syria's president Bashar Assad accused Israel of avoiding peace, and its prime minister warned that if war broke out, Israeli cities would be attacked. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman replied that if Damascus draws Israel into a war, its army would be defeated and the Syrian regime would collapse.