Officials: Visit shows Syria-Iran ties strong

Officials dismiss as "Syrian spin" reports that Assad is in Teheran to resolve nuclear standoff with West.

assad sits and talks 224 (photo credit: AP)
assad sits and talks 224
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli diplomatic officials dismissed as "Syrian spin" intended for Western ears reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad was in Teheran over the weekend trying to persuade Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to provide proof his country isn't pursuing nuclear weapons. Assad pledged to French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a meeting in Paris last month that he would bring up the issue with Ahmadinejad. Iranian state television reported that talks about the uranium enrichment began soon after Assad arrived for two days of talks on Saturday. But diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said the real purpose of Assad's visit was to strengthen the ties between the two countries. Indeed, Syria's official news agency, SANA, said economic ties between the countries would be a focus of the talks, adding that such ties had resulted in over a dozen projects in Syria, worth $896 million. SANA, a mouthpiece for the government, said both Teheran and Damascus were "seriously seeking to increase the size of joint investments to more than $3 billion over the next years." Beyond these investments, however, Israeli officials maintain that Iran has become instrumental in propping up Syria's limping economy. The visit, said diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, would strengthen those in Israel who are not supportive of the current indirect talks with Syria, saying that Damascus had no intention of distancing itself from Iran. "This will put additional question marks around whether Syria will ever distance itself from Iran," the sources said. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said in the past that any agreement with Syria would necessitate Damascus moving out of Iran's orbit, as well as Syria stopping its support for both Hizbullah and Hamas. The sources said it was clear Damascus would present the visit as having to do with the Iranian nuclear program, since Assad is keen on improving relations with the West, and since Sarkozy is scheduled to visit Syria in September. SANA said the purpose of Assad's visit was "to consult on the nuclear issue and the right of states to peaceful enrichment" and also "to exchange ideas aimed at clarifying Iran's commitment to all international agreements." SANA affirmed "identical views" of the two countries on "major regional and international" issues, hailed their rejection of "foreign dictates" and stressed the need for a "timetable for a withdrawal of foreign forces from" Iraq - an allusion to US troops there. It also lauded Assad's France visit and said Damascus's policies have proved Syria capable of "effecting a change in the policies of the French and Europeans in such a way so as to serve the region and its issues." In his meeting with Assad, Ahmadinejad reportedly reiterated that Teheran would not give up its "nuclear rights," according to the official Web site of the Iranian leader. Any participation by Iran in international talks on the nuclear issue would "definitely be aimed at reinforcing" those rights, Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying in the report. "The Iranian nation will not give up a single iota of its nuclear rights," Ahmadinejad said. Staff and AP contributed to this report