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Iran/Syria: Increasingly Isolated Leaders Seek Mutual Support

Presidents al-Assad (left) and Ahmadinejad in Damascus on 19 January (epa) Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad arrived in Damascus on 19 January for a two-day visit to Syria -- his first since being elected in June. The visit comes as both Iran and Syria are under increasing international pressure: Tehran over its nuclear program and Damascus over its alleged role in the assassination last year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Are Ahmadinejad and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, teaming up to build an alliance of sympathetic governments?

20 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on 19 January expressed support for Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities and accused the West of failing to supply any logical argument for denying Iran nuclear technology.

"We support the right of Iran and states in the world to acquire peaceful [nuclear] technology," al-Assad said. "Until now, countries that oppose this have given no convincing reason. If there is a reason, they should start with Israel because it is the only one in the Middle East that owns a nuclear arsenal."

President Ahmadinejad described Syria as "the steadfast party confronting Israel" and Iran as "the defender of Islamic vigilance." He said those roles oblige those two countries to have more understanding and cooperation.
Tehran and Damascus have been allies for years. Syria was the only Arab country that assisted during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

Both countries are accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism and disrupting the Middle East peace process. They have also been accused of interference in Iraq aimed at aiding the insurgency and obstructing security efforts.

Ahmadinejad‘s first visit to Syria comes less than two weeks ahead of an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), during which the possible referral of Iran’s nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council will be discussed.

The IAEA meeting was called at the request of EU countries after Iran resumed nuclear-fuel research on 10 January.

Iran’s move was criticized by a number of countries, including permanent Security Council members Russia and China.

On 18 January, President Ahmadinejad called Iran’s relations with Syria lasting and strong. He suggested that both countries "reject any foreign interference."

Alex Vatanka is Eurasia editor at "Jane’s Country Risk." He said the psychological aspect of Ahmadinejad’s trip is important.

"[It is important] particularly for the Iranian audience to some extent -- but also trying to put some fear in the mind of those people in the West, particularly ordinary people in places like the U.S. who are contemplating the idea of a potential military strike against Iran by sort of creating this scenario, portraying Iran and Syria to be in some sort of military alliance that can stand up together in unison against the U.S., which is very unrealistic," Vatanka said. "But still when you are involved in such an intense period of psychological campaign being waged by both sides, then these small steps do make a difference."

Alireza Nourizadeh, a journalist in London specializing in Middle Eastern affairs, told Radio Farda that both Iran and Syria feel threatened and are therefore trying to forge closer ties.

"Because of that, we have seen that in recent months both Syria and Iran have tried to rely on each other more [than previously]," Nourizadeh said. "The Islamic Republic [of Iran] sees itself in danger. The atomic issue is on the table; therefore Iran needs to have some allies in the Arab world. Naturally Syria is one of them, even though Syria’s credibility is shaky now and the country is under question."

But Hermidas Bavand, a professor of International law in Tehran, said he believes the trip is unlikely to help Iran in the current crisis over its nuclear program.

"I don’t think Iran will have anything out of the trip. Under the current conditions -- where Syria is under threats and pressure from the U.S., France, and other countries, even Arab countries have not accepted [the idea of] taking a stance in favor of Syria -- this move by Iran will not be beneficial. It will have relatively negative consequences," Bavand said.

Ahmadinejad appears to be seeking allies among like-minded groups in the face of Iran's international isolation. News agency reports today said Ahmadinejad met with leaders from several militant Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad leader Abdallah Ramadan Shallah and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. A senior member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Maher al-Taher, told Reuters that the Iranian president stressed his country's solidarity with the Palestinian people. He added that participants "confirmed" the need for an alliance to oppose what he called "the Zionist-American schemes in the region."

Vatanka from "Jane's Country Risk" predicted that such a front would not find support among countries in the region.

"Ahmadinejad is the kind of man who could pull it off and provide far more funding to groups of the nature that has been the case previously," Vatanka said. "The Iranians could at least try and use that as a way of putting more pressure or making the Americans more weary when it comes to how to deal with Iran. From an ideological point of view, that kind of alliance will always last, as long as you've got this huge external threat being the U.S."

Ahmadinejad's Syrian visit was scheduled to conclude after another meeting today with President al-Assad.

(Radio Farda correspondent Mossadegh Katouzian contributed to this report.)