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Syria Leader In Iran As West's Nuclear Deadline Looms

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
TEHRAN -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has arrived for talks in Tehran, a few weeks after he told France he would use his good relations with Iran to help resolve its nuclear stand-off with the West.

Al-Assad's two-day visit to Iran coincides with an informal deadline set by Western officials in the dispute over Tehran's atomic plans, which the United States suspects are aimed at making bombs. The Islamic Republic says its aims are peaceful.

Syria's president was expected to meet his Iranian counterpart Mahmud Ahmadinejad and other senior officials.

Western powers gave Iran two weeks from July 19 to respond to their offer to hold off on imposing more UN sanctions on Iran if Tehran would freeze any expansion of its nuclear work.

That would suggest a deadline of August 2, although Russia, one of the six powers facing Iran, has opposed a deadline and Iran dismissed the idea of having two weeks to reply.

European diplomats in Brussels say they are ready to wait a few more days for an answer.

The West accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear warheads under cover of a civilian power program. Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, denies the charge.

Visiting Paris last month, al-Assad said he would respond to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's request and use his good ties with Iran to help resolve the nuclear row.

He also said in the French capital on July 14 that a military attack on Iran over its nuclear program would have grave consequences for the United States, Israel, and the world.

Washington says it wants a diplomatic solution to the dispute but has not ruled out military action if that fails.

The United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany in June offered Iran economic and other incentives to coax it into halting uranium enrichment, which can have both civilian and military uses.

The freeze idea is aimed at getting preliminary talks started, although formal negotiations on the incentives package will not start before Iran stops enriching uranium, which Tehran says is solely aimed at providing fuel for power plants.

Iran, whose refusal to halt the work has drawn three rounds of UN sanctions since 2006, has rejected suspension in the past and has given no indication that it is ready for a freeze.