Thursday, January 19, 2006

Under-fire Iran, Syria leaders close ranks


Under-fire allies Damascus and Tehran, faced with growing isolation, closed ranks in talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Iran has the right to build up nuclear technology for peaceful purposes," Assad said at a joint press conference after their meeting.

"We expressed our support for Iran in its pursuit of peaceful nuclear technology and we back the idea of a dialogue with international parties," said the Syrian leader. "We also reject the pressure being exerted on this country" over its nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad's trip to Damascus comes ahead of an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board on February 2, called by European nuclear negotiators aiming to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

Iran said this month it was halting a voluntary moratorium on sensitive uranium enrichment research -- a step short of a process that could be extended to make the core of a nuclear weapon.

The move has prompted alarm around the world and driven oil prices higher.

The Islamic republic insists it only wants to make reactor fuel to generate electricity, and asserts it has the right to do so under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

On Lebanon, Assad said Syria and Iran wanted stability there but stressed "the need to support the resistance" to Israel, in reference to the radical Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

Syria, the former power-broker in Lebanon, was opposed to "any interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon and its internationalization," he said.

He said Iran and Syria were also united in their support for the resistance against Israel and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Hardliner Ahmadinejad was at the start of a two-day visit to Syria, Tehran's only regional ally, as both countries struggle to fend off mounting international pressure.

Iran faces possible UN sanctions over Iran's disputed nuclear program, while Assad's regime is also increasingly isolated over its alleged involvement in former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri's murder in February 2005.

On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said "our position on regional issues is clear. We reject any foreign interference," a reference to the pressure on Damascus over the assassination.

An Iranian presidential official said economic issues would figure high on the agenda of the visit.
Iran and Syria are both under US sanctions for their alleged sponsorship of terrorism and quest for weapons of mass destruction. They also stand accused of playing a spoiling role in their shared neighbour Iraq.

Damascus's ties with neighbouring Lebanon have been increasingly strained since the Hariri assassination, which stirred an international outcry and led to Syria's military pullout from Lebanon last April after a 29-year deployment.

The UN probe into the murder has implicated top-level Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials, and it has asked to interview Assad..

Syria has denied involvement and described the UN probe as biased, a position Iran's state-run press and government officials have consistently supported.

Tehran and Damascus also back Hezbollah, which is called on to disarm under UN Security Council Resolution 1559, adopted in September 2004.

Apart from the nuclear dispute, Ahmadinejad has also made a series of anti-Israeli outbursts in recent months, describing the Jewish state as a "tumor" and calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

The alliance between Tehran and Damascus dates back to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 when Syria sided with the Islamic republic against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

A number of economic accords are expected to be signed during Ahmadinejad's visit.

Yearly trade between the two totals some 100 million dollars, according to the Iranian embassy. Iran has invested 750 million dollars in Syria, including the construction of two cement factories and several silos.