JERUSALEM – Iran has passed nonconventional weapons to Syria for possible use in the event the regime of Bashar al-Assad faces imminent collapse, according to knowledgeable Middle Eastern security officials.

The information comes as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters yesterday the Syrian government seems to have slowed any preparations for the possible use of chemical weapons against so-called rebels fighting Assad’s forces.

“At this point the intelligence has really kind of leveled off,” Panetta said. “We haven’t seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way.”

U.S. officials had announced last week there was evidence indicating Syrian forces had begun preparing sarin, a nerve agent, for possible use in bombs.

Syria vehemently denied the chemical weapons charges and instead accused the U.S.-backed rebels of preparing chemical weapons themselves for use against civilians.

The Syrian foreign ministry released a statement that “Terrorist groups may resort to using chemical weapons against the Syrian people… after having gained control of a toxic chlorine factory” east of Aleppo.

Last week, members of the al-Qaida affiliated Al-Nusra, which makes up the top leadership of the rebel fighters, reportedly seized control of the Syrian-Saudi Chemicals Company factory near the Syrian town of Safira.

A YouTube video even purported to show Syrian rebels testing chemical weapons, although the veracity of the video is in question.

Syria “is defending its people against terrorism, which is supported by known countries, with the United States at the forefront,” Syria’’s foreign ministry said.

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