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Iran denies cracks appearing in ties with Syria


By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Iran denied Monday that cracks were appearing in its alliance with Syria over Iraq and Lebanon, areas where the Damascus government has been under U.S. pressure to change its policies.

"We have seen during our talks with Syrian officials that their positions are in unison with ours regarding the threats against the countries of the region," said Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Velayati was speaking in the Syrian capital after meeting President Bashar al-Assad. Separately he met exiled leaders of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

At a news conference in the Iranian embassy, he faced a barrage of questions about possible strains in the alliance between the Tehran and Damascus, established 30 years ago when Syria, virtually alone in the Arab Middle East, backed the Islamic Republic in its war with Iraq.

It was the first time that Iranian officials, who regularly visit Syria, had faced questions on the sensitive topic of disagreements with Damascus.

U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia has been highly critical of the alliance between Syria's secular ruling hierarchy and Iran's Shi'ite clerical leaders. Last week Assad and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah paid a joint visit to Lebanon .

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, due to visit Syria Tuesday, said after meeting the Lebanese foreign minister in Tehran Sunday that the Islamic Republic supported the Assad-Abdullah trip to Lebanon.

The joint visit was a sign of a resurgence in Syrian influence in the Middle East, as well as the Saudis' keenness to prop up Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri against his rivals in the Syrian-backed Shi'ite movement Hezbollah.

U.N. INVESTIGATION

Hezbollah has made it clear it would not tolerate any international indictments against its members over the 2005 killing in Beirut of Hariri's father Rafik, a well-connected billionaire politician who had Lebanese and Saudi nationality.

"Putting forth these accusations after four years of pointing the finger against Syria shows that there's a political build-up to cause disturbances in Lebanon," Velayati said.

He was referring to a United Nations investigation that implicated Syrian security officials in the killing.

Hariri's assassination that subsequently resulted in Syria being forced to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

Syria has since been rehabilitated on the international scene, partly as a result of talks with the United States to stem infiltration into Iraq.

Syria has said is willing to resume talks with Israel if the Jewish state commits to handing back the whole of the Golan Heights which it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.

Washington and Israel also want Syria to scale back its ties with Iran and stop suspected arms shipments to Hezbollah.

Syria has not hidden its displeasure with Iranian-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who wants to hang on to power after an inconclusive election in March.

(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)