ABU DHABI - The Syrian people should be left to choose their leader in elections due in 2014 and until then countries should avoid aggravating the bloodshed by interfering on the ground, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Monday.

Iran has supported Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout the 16-month uprising in Syria, a rare ally amidst widespread condemnation of a crackdown on dissent that has left thousands dead.

Syria, led by members of a sect related to Shi'ite Islam, accuses the Sunni-led Gulf monarchies of supporting unrest among its Sunni majority as a way to check rising Shi'ite influence in the region, most notably that of Shi'ite Iran.

Far from urging Assad to step down, as the West and many Middle Eastern countries have done, Salehi said he should stay at least until elections in 2014.

"No ruler is an eternal ruler, so in the case of Mr. Bashar Assad, by 2014 there are presidential elections in which we will have to let the events take their normal course," Salehi said in an interview with Reuters in Abu Dhabi.

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United Nations peace envoy Kofi Annan has said he would like to see Iran take part in international efforts to end the Syria crisis, but that has been rejected by Washington and its allies.

Backing Assad's assertion that he is battling foreign-armed "terrorists", Salehi said a "good portion" of the rebels were from extremist militant groups.

"Now there are a lot of weapons being smuggled into Syria. Many people from different countries are pouring into Syria and raising arms against the government. This aggravates the situation," Salehi said.

"My message to all countries that can play a role in this regard is to be very prudent and wise not to worsen the situation," said the softly spoken Iraqi-born foreign minister.

Speaking as Annan headed to Tehran after a meeting with Assad in Damascus on Monday, Salehi said Iran still supported the envoy's six-point peace plan and said Annan should be given "enough chance to be able to push forward" his proposal.

"We also support this idea whereby the government and the opposition sit down together to find a way out," he said.

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