SYRIAN PRESIDENT IN TEHRAN TO FOSTER IRAN SYRIA STRATEGIC TIES

TEHRAN 25TH Jan. (IPS) Syrian President Bashar Asad arrived in Tehran Wednesday and started immediately talks with his Iranian counterpart Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, centring on the situation in the Middle East, chiefly the thorny and difficult Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that both of them try to derail.

The two-days visit is the first by the new Syrian strongman, the son of his father who died of a heart attack last June, to a non-Arab nation with which Syria has a long-standing, yet unwritten "strategic and privileged" tie, dating to 1980, when neighbouring Iraq suddenly attacked Iran, becoming the only Arab country to back the newly proclaimed Islamic Republic while all other Arab governments had rushed to support Baghdad.

Leading an important political and economic delegation that includes the two Syrian "heavy weights" and veterans in first Vice-president Abdolhalim Khaddam and Foreign Minister Faruq al Shara’, the young Asad was welcomed by Mr. Khatami not at the airport but at Sa’d Abad Palace, the residence of the overthrown Pahlavi dynasty situated in the posh northern Tehran.

Political analysts and diplomatic observers said continuation and developing new ways of support both Tehran and Damascus give to Arab and Palestinian groups, opposed to the peace process, particularly to the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian organisations opposed to Mr. Yaser Arafat, the "President" of the Palestinian Authority was discussed.

The "systematic" backing Iran and Syria provided to Hezbollah, the dominantly Lebanese Shi’a organisation in resisting and fighting Israeli "occupation" of a portion of land in south of Lebanon known as "security zone" was instrumental in the unilateral withdrawal, last June, from the area, a move that was heralded as the end of the "invincibility myth" of Tsahal, or the Israeli army.

Though since the evacuation of the zone by Israel have changed the nature of the situation, yet, and for different political calculations, both allies are keen to keep the area "warm".

Asad arrived in Tehran as Israel has relayed warnings to Syria through both the United States and the European Union that a Hizbullah attack on the northern border would result in massive retaliation that would change the balance of power in the Middle East, according to press reports from Jerusalem.

Israeli government sources said the warning was relayed over the last few weeks via countries that are friendly to Syria. These include the United States, France, Germany and Italy. Most of these governments, they said, supported Israel's right to launch a massive counterattack against Hizbullah.

"Some of the governments, particularly the United States, made it clear to Syria that it pulls the strings of Hizbullah," an Israeli source said. "In contrast, they played down Iran's role in Hizbullah operations", World Tribune.com said.

"By evacuating the security zone, Israel has killed two birds with one stone, as it robbed Syria with its most important, one may say the only bargaining card in negotiations with Tel-Aviv in the one hand and placed the Iranians Ayatollahs in an awkward position explaining the presence of large military presence in the region and continuing substantial financial assistance to Hezbollah", one Lebanese political analyst observed, asking his name be kept secret.

Confirming this view, the conservatives-controlled Tehran Radio, in an "authorised commentary" reiterated that the "anti-zionist" positions of Iran and Syria was "pivotal" for the expansion of the two countries bilateral ties, "a special relationship that resulted in the victory of Lebanese Islamic resistance against the common enemy".

But observers noted that while Iran is calling for the "annihilation" of the "Zionist Entity", Syria, on the other hand, is recognising the existence of Israel, being engaged in peace negotiations.

Syria has held sporadic peace talks with Israel since 1991 but the negotiations that broke down a year ago made no progress on the fate of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war

Though Tehran would like Damascus adopting a similar line, yet it has stated officially that it would "respect" Syrian decision if it were to establish official diplomatic relations with Tel-Aviv.

As Mr. Asad was coming from the United Arab Emirates, a Persian Gulf sheikhdom that claims three Iranian-held islands situated strategically at the mouth of the waterway, sources speculated that he might mediate on the issue.

However, some Iranian political experts who asked for anonymity regretted that despite the close relationship that effectively exist between Iran and Syria, Damascus always backed the UAE’s claim.

Iranian media observed a tight lip concerning the issue, as well as that of Syrian debts to Iran, estimated at over five US$ billions.

"Given the volatile situation in Tehran where the power struggle between ruling conservatives and the embattled President is reaching new heights, the young Asad would like to take the temperature by himself and establish personal contacts with the Iranians", said Dr. Alireza Nurizadeh, an independent Iranian journalist and an expert of Arab affairs based in London from where he writes for several Arab publications.

He said though it is "natural" for President Asad to reserve his first official visit to Iran, yet, as far as the islands are concerned, "Iran would make no concession".

President Khatami said the principles drawn by the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Asad on Syria-Iran relations "have always been affirmed by the two countries and, given the present state of affairs, bilateral relations have steadily improved".

"Tehran-Damascus relations is now developing in various fields in the best possible manner and the two countries are now preparing to witness even greater coordination'', responded the Syrian President, the Iranian official news agency IRNA reported.

"As two key political allies in the turbulent Middle East, Tehran and Damascus have enjoyed good relations since the victory of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution when Syria allied itself with Iran during the eight-year Iraqi-imposed war. They hold common views on wide-ranging regional and international issues, including their hostility to Israel", IRNA commented.

"Both insist on the restoration of the right of the Palestinians who were rendered refugees by the creation of Jewish state in 1948, as well as their families, to return to their homeland -- a proposal categorically rejected by Israel", it added.

However, it regretted that as strategic partners in the region, the volume of trade between the two countries is insignificant, although the visit by Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Mustapha Miro to Tehran in November last year is believed to have opened avenues for greater cooperation.

Miro's trip resulted in the signing of accords on transport, cooperation in oil technology and on trade and industrial cooperation.

For its part, Syria's ruling party newspaper al-Baath said Wednesday that Syria will spare no efforts to strengthen relations between Iran and Arab countries.

"Syria, under the leadership of President Bashar al-Asad, is working today to give a new boost to its relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and will spare no efforts to strengthen relations between the Arabs and Iran," the daily said.

"The solid nature of Syrian-Iranian relations is a force for the Arabs and a support for their principal cause, the recovery of occupied territories and usurped rights from the Israeli racist aggressors and the liberation of Jerusalem," al-Baath said.

"These relations are likely to produce further potential in the struggle against Israel", the paper added. ENDS IRAN SYRIA 25101