ROME-PARIS, 24 Jan. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Damascus on Thursday for talks with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad who, just 48 hours after the Iranian leader was sworn in last August, travelled to Tehran to pay his respects. But more than the trading of courtesies, the trip focused on joint regional political strategies. Both Iran and Syria are under pressure from the West and risk referral to the UN Security Council where they could face sanctions - Iran over its nuclear programme, Syria for not cooperating with the UN probe into the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.
Al-Assad is also under siege at home where he is being abandoned by many top officials of the Baath Party which has ruled the country for over three decades. He has had to contend with several high-profile defections, most notably former vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam who, from his exile in Paris, has implicated the Syrian leader in Hariri's killing.
Iran and Syria have been close allies for years, bound by a common hatred for Israel.
More worrying for the president is the growing dissent from elements within the powerful and feared Mukhabarat secret services and the military which have propped up both Bashar's and his father Hafez al-Assad's regimes. Some experts predict that the security apparatus is plotting to dethrone Bashar who they regard as young and inexperienced.
But despite even more profound differences - Iran espouses a fundamentalist brand of Islam which permeates all sections of society, while secular Syria has routinely clamped down on the activities of Muslim clerics - the two countries have been close allies for years, bound by a common hatred for Israel.
Iran regards its friendship with Israel-bordering Syria as vital so it can use it as a logistical base to provide support to extremists such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups. Syria, its economy in tatters after failed nationalisation schemes and the demise of its Soviet bloc backers, relies on oil-rich Iran for support.
Before his departure, Ahmadinejad indicated that he and al-Assad would discuss "the continuous interferences by foreign forces in the [Middle East] region." The Iranian president added that such interference was the "attempt [by the West through a UN Security Council resolution] to disarm Hezbollah in Lebanon and Western pressure to force the Palestinians to sit at the negotiating table with the Israelis."
Palestinian elections, scheduled for 25 January 2006 was an important topic at the Damascus meeting. The prospect of a Hamas victory, which opinion polls suggest could edge out the more moderate Fatah faction of the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, would open up new more favourable scenarios for the Syrians and the Iranians.
A Hamas victory might result in an end to negotiations with the Israelis and further delay the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. This is precisely what Damascus and Tehran want.
"The main obstacle to Washington's Greater Middle East [peace] project is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict", says former Iranian foreign minister, Ebrahim Yazdi, one of the few internal dissenting voices tolerated by Ahmadinejad and his supporters.
"If the Palestinian issue were to be resolved, then Syria and the Islamic Republic would not be able to resist [the US' efforts] for long, because they would lose the support that they currently enjoy in the region as standard-bearers for the Palestinian cause", he said.
Safa Haeri adds from Paris
In Tehran meanwhile, a conservative lawmaker said Ahmadinejad’s visit to Bashar Assad was “very important, necessary and opportune”.
It was necessary that Ahmadinejad go to Syria and bring him the voice of resistance in face of injustice.
“Since after the terror (assassination) of Rafiq Hariri, Syria is under strong accusations from the United States, therefore it was necessary that Ahmadinejad go to Syria and bring him the voice of resistance in face of injustice”, Mohammad Nabi Roudaki of Shiraz told the Labour news agency ILNA on 24 January 2006.
Mr. Ropudaki, depuy Chairman of the Majles, or the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee added that the 24 hours visit took place at a “very oportunate moment” as the Syrians are under “tremendous pressures from the United States and the United Nations’ team investigating the assassination of Mr. Hariri.
Political analysts said the reason that it was Mr. Ahmadinejad who travelled to Damascus to assure Bashar of Iran’s support was due to the fact that Mr. Khaddam used to have very close working-personal relationships with a number of high-ranking Iranian officials, including former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
“More than anyone else in Damascus, Khaddam was the Iranian’s man. He was instrumental in his country’s taking the side of the Iranian ayatollahs when Saddam Hussein attacked Iran”, one former journalist told Iran Press Service. ENDS IRAN SYRIA 24106
Editor’s note: The original article was written by Mr. Ahmad Rafat, the Iran and Middle Correspondent of the Italian independent news agency AKI on 19 January 2006
Highlights and some editing are by IPS