DUBAI - Iran said on Thursday it would stand by its ally Syria, despite mounting international pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down to end a 16-month uprising against his rule.

Iran's Press TV quoted first Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi as saying Tehran's support for Syria was "unchangeable", countering suggestions that Iran could soften its backing for Assad, the Shi'ite Muslim republic's closest Arab ally.

"The Iranian people have an unchangeable stance on Syrians and will always stand by them," Rahimi was quoted as saying, accusing major powers of uniting to damage the Syrian nation.

Despite lauding popular uprisings in other Arab countries as an "Islamic awakening", Iran has dismissed opposition to Assad's rule as a foreign conspiracy.

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A statement earlier this month by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi that Tehran was ready to host talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups suggested a possible policy shift.

In a concrete sign of support for the Syrian authorities, a delegation of Syrian ministers visited Tehran on Thursday, agreeing on a deal regarding the import of Iranian electricity via Iraq.

"We agreed with Iran that in one month, agreements be made with Iraq so that putting problems to one side, electricity imports from Iran begin," the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA) quoted Imad Khamis, Syria's electricity minister, as saying.

Iraq's Shi'ite-led government, which is close to Iran, has called for reform in Syria rather than an end to Assad's rule.

Russia: Demands that Assad quit prolong Syrian conflict

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Thursday that demands that Assad quit power are blocking efforts to end the 16-month-old conflict.

Lavrov said such calls - made by the United States, several European and Arab governments and Turkey - were fanning the flames of violence and reiterated Moscow's claim that support for Syrian rebel groups was tantamount to backing terrorism.

"We propose things that would allow for an immediate ceasefire, but the other side says, 'No, either the regime capitulates or we will continue to back ... the opposition's armed fight', justifying terrorist acts," Lavrov said.

"As long as such support continues, what kind of humanitarian action can we talk about? - including the initiatives of those who will not allow this fire to die down, but instead are fanning it," he told a joint briefing with Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic in Moscow.

Russia, an ally of Syria, and China have faced vehement criticism from Western states for vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to increase pressure on Assad to end the violence sparked by a government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Moscow retaliated this week, accusing the United States on Wednesday of trying to justify terrorism against the Syrian government.

The claim raised tensions surrounding a diplomatic spat in the UN Security Council, pitting Russia and China against their permanent veto-wielding counterparts the United States, Britain and France. Washington has said it will seek ways to tackle the crisis in Syria outside the world body.

Moscow has repeatedly criticized Western nations for encouraging Assad's foes and said they must put more pressure on rebels to stop the violence in Syria, warning that some of those fighting government forces are extremist militants.

Russia, which sells arms and makes use of a naval maintenance facility in Syria, says its rejection of sanctions is not driven by support for Assad but by a conviction that Syrians must decide their own fate and opposition to military intervention.

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