Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syria’s President Bashar Assad on Thursday together unleashed vicious rhetoric against Israel, with Ahmadinejad declaring that the “criminal” state of Israel is doomed, and Assad charging that Israel “is capable of aggression at any point.”
Visiting Damascus, Ahmadinejad vowed that Arab nations will usher in a new Middle East “without Zionists and without colonialists.”
In remarks that extended to vicious criticism of the US, and made a mockery of Washington’s efforts to engage his Syrian hosts, Ahmadinejad said the United States should leave the Middle East and stay out of regional affairs.
“[The Americans] want to dominate the region but they feel Iran and Syria are preventing that,” Ahmadinejad said during a news conference with Assad. “We tell them that instead of interfering in the region's affairs, to pack their things and leave.”
He added that “if the Zionist regime wants to repeat its past mistakes, this will constitute its demise and annihilation.”
Assad, for his part, said Syria was “facing an entity that is capable of aggression at any point, and we are preparing ourselves for any Israeli aggression, be it on a large or small scale.”
Israel had no formal response to Ahmadinejad’s meetings in Damascus, nor to his or Assad’s comments, with one diplomatic official saying Jerusalem’s policy is not to respond to every threat or “ridiculous” comment that the Iranian president makes.
But President Shimon Peres slammed the meeting between Ahmadinejad and Assad, warning that Iran’s true designs were for “hegemony over the Arab world in the Middle East.”
“The time has come to tell the truth,” Peres said at a memorial service for Joseph Trumpledor in Tel Hai.
“The problem in the Middle East is not the Palestinian problem, which will be solved in a peace process with Israel. The central problem in the Middle East is Iran’s attempt to take control of the Arab Middle East, which is why it is building an atomic bomb, and why it is supporting and developing terror organizations like Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza,” Peres said.
The region was troubled by Ahmadinejad’s “megalomania,” and Assad must decide whether he wanted “to go with Iran into the axis of terror and evil, or to make peace with Israel,” said the president.
“What vision does Ahmadinejad present to the world?” Peres asked. “What message does he bring? Israel extends its hand in peace, development and construction in the Middle East, while Iran has a vision of war and destruction.”
Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, missed the opportunity to make peace with Israel 30 years ago when Jerusalem signed an agreement with Cairo, Peres said, while Israel was now calling on the son to enter into negotiations “without intermediaries” in order to reach peace.
In an attempt to draw Syria away from Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, the US has reached out to Syria in recent months by nominating a ambassador to Damascus and sending top diplomats to meet with Assad. But with Ahmadinejad by his side, Assad said on Thursday that America should not dictate relationships in the Middle East.
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, speaking to reporters in Washington on Thursday, said Assad “need only look around the region and recognize that Syria is increasingly an outlier.”
“We want to see Syria play a more constructive role in the region and one step would be to make clear what Iran needs to do differently. And unfortunately, there was no evidence of that today,” he said.
Coming a day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for Syria to move away from Iran, Assad told reporters: “I find it strange how they talk about Middle East stability and at the same time talk about dividing two countries.”
Assad took a swipe at Clinton for making such a suggestion, saying he and Ahmadinejad were “misunderstood, maybe because of translation error or limited understanding.”
In a show of unity, the two signed an agreement canceling the need for travel visas between their countries.
US President Barack Obama is determined to engage with Syria, a country seen as key to peace in the region but which the State Department considers a sponsor of terrorism.
Former president George W. Bush withdrew the last US ambassador to Syria in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which his supporters blamed on Syria.
But Clinton said on Wednesday that the recent decision to send an ambassador to Syria did not mean American concerns about the country have been addressed.
Speaking to lawmakers in Washington, Clinton said the nomination of career diplomat Robert Ford signaled a “slight opening” with Syria. But she said Washington remained troubled by suspected Syrian support for militant groups in Iraq and elsewhere, interference in Lebanon, and close relationship with Iran.
Assad called America’s stance toward Iran “a new situation of colonialism in the region.”
Despite its efforts to woo Syria, Washington has not lifted sanctions on Damascus. First imposed by Bush and renewed by Obama in May, the sanctions cite Syria’s support for terrorism, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and other activities including efforts to undermine US operations in Iraq.
Iran’s economic and political support has enabled Syria to survive those sanctions and international isolation.
Ahmadinejad stressed that Syria and Iran are partners with a long history.
“There is nothing that could harm these brotherly relations,” he said. “With each passing day, these relations will improve and deepen.”
American officials expressed concern that aspects of the Iran-Syria relationship could undermine regional security.
“We have no objection with Iran and Syria maintaining a healthy relationship,” a State Department official said. “Our problem is with the aspects of the Iran-Syria relationship that undermine regional peace and security.”
“US policy is aimed at pressing both countries, through a balance of incentives and pressures, to end its negative influence and join its regional partners in advancing stability,” the official said, adding: “We continue to encourage partners in the region to pursue a similar strategy vis-à-vis Syria and Iran.”
During testimony Thursday on Capitol Hill, Clinton reiterated US support for tough sanctions against the Iranian regime. Through disclosures about its nuclear facility, Iran gave the international community “little choice but to impose greater costs for its provocative steps,” she said.
“The fact that the Iranian regime has failed to respond, and in the course of the past year has shown its brutality to its own people,” she said, has “demonstrated to the rest of the world what the facts are about Iran’s ambitions and about its refusal to engage in a serious manner.”
Clinton said the administration’s policy calls for the “broadest and most effective sanctions that can be brought to bear on the Iranian regime.”
But a New York lawmaker, New York Rep. Eliot Engel, has called the Obama administration’s decision to reappoint an ambassador to Syria a “mistake.”
“Unless Syria has agreed to something I am not privy to behind the scenes – making themselves helpful, ready to take some steps away from Iran, ready to cooperate in the region for peace and stability – then there is some rationale for the move,” Engel told The Jerusalem Post
this week. “But short of that, I don’t see any rationale in it at this time.”
Pressed by Engel during the hearing on Thursday, Clinton said it was in the US “national interest” to have an embassy in Damascus to “avoid strategic miscalculations on the part of Syria.”
“We are committed to making clear to Syria what we expect,” she said. Being on the ground “gives us more leverage and opportunities to pursue those expectations.”
Clinton is set to meet Defense Minister Ehud Barak this week during his five-day trip to the US. Besides Clinton, Barak was set to meet senior American officials to push for US-led Iran sanctions.
“Our efforts to move forward in the Security Council should not be
viewed as our exclusive efforts,” Clinton said during the hearing,
envisioning bilateral and multilateral efforts. “We believe in a broad
approach,” she said. “If we’re going to go to the international
community, through the UN, through other multilateral efforts, we want
sanctions that will be effective. We think the broader, the more likely
that is to be.”
During the hearing, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pressed Clinton for
details on US-led sanctions. “The Iranian threat keeps growing,” she
said. “When will we be leveraging the Iran Sanctions Act,” she added,
“and cutting off the regime?”