The Guardian: Iran and Syria heightened tension across the Middle East and directly confronted the Bush administration yesterday by declaring they had formed a mutual self-defence pact to confront the “threats” now facing them. The move, which took the Foreign Office by surprise, was announced after a meeting in Tehran between the Iranian vice-president, … The Guardian
Ewen MacAskill in Beirut and Duncan Campbell
Iran and Syria heightened tension across the Middle East and directly confronted the Bush administration yesterday by declaring they had formed a mutual self-defence pact to confront the “threats” now facing them.
The move, which took the Foreign Office by surprise, was announced after a meeting in Tehran between the Iranian vice-president, Mohammed Reza Aref, and the Syrian prime minister, Naji al-Otari.
“At this sensitive point, the two countries require a united front due to numerous challenges,” said Mr Otari.
Regarded as rogue states by the White House, Iran is under pressure over its nuclear ambitions, while Syria came under renewed scrutiny over the assassination this week of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Yesterday’s announcement came as the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, predicted that Tehran would have the knowledge to produce a nuclear weapon within six months.
Speaking in London, he accused Iran of preparing nuclear weapons that would be able to target “London, Paris and Madrid” by the end of the decade.
“We believe the Iranians will never abandon their dreams” of nuclear weapons, Mr Shalom said. “It is not Israel’s problem any more, it is the world’s problem.”
He said that “the question is not if Iran will hold a nuclear bomb in 2009, 2010, 2111, it is whether they have that knowledge. In six months, they will finish the tests to have the knowledge to produce weapons of mass destruction”.
A British official cautioned that Israel has always put Iran’s nuclear development “ahead of the estimates here and in the US”.
“But no one knows for sure. We know the Iranians will not surprise us tomorrow, but whether it will be one year, or five or 10, we do not know.”
The potential for further conflict in the region was highlighted yesterday by the reaction of the financial markets to speculative reports of an explosion near a nuclear facility in Iran. Oil prices surged by more than a dollar. It later emerged that the explosion had been caused during construction of a dam.
Though Syrian diplomats insisted the alliance with Iran was not a move to provoke the US, there was no qualification when the declaration was made in Tehran. Speaking at the end of the talks, the Syrian prime minister said: “This meeting, which takes place at this sensitive time, is important, especially because Syria and Iran face several challenges and it is necessary to build a common front.”
Mr Aref added: “We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats.”
Syria and Iran do not have a natural affinity but are alleged by western governments to have engaged in covert military cooperation in the past.
The British official said the pact could just be rhetoric, “a marriage of convenience” for two countries feeling a need to bolster one another.
Syria has recently been engaged in a diplomatic offensive to try to ward off US criticism, and its ambassador to the UN, Imad Moustapha, reflected this yesterday, denying the pact was anti-American.
“Today we do not want to form a front against anybody, particularly not against the United States,” he said.
But tension between the countries remains high.
Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus on Tuesday after the assassination of Mr Hariri, who advocated the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
As well as withdrawal from Lebanon, the US has called on Damascus to close the headquarters in the capital of Hamas, the main Palestinian group responsible for suicide bombers; to end its support for Hizbullah, the Lebanese-based, anti-Israeli militia; and to block support for the insurgency in Iraq from within Syria. It has also called on Iran to end its support for Hizbullah.
Washington at present is focused on pressing the security council to introduce new sanctions against Iran and Syria.
Iran denies having ambitions to build a nuclear weapon and claims its programme is for purely civil purposes.
Iran’s intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, claimed yesterday the US has been flying spy drones over Iran’s nuclear sites and they would be shot down if they came within range.
Negotiations in Geneva between Britain, France, Germany and Iran aimed at resolving the crisis ended last week. Further talks are planned, but the US and Israel are sceptical about the value of these talks.
The Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, said in Berlin that the negotiations could succeed. “I believe there are possibilities … to remove the concerns of the European side,” he said.