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Iran, Syria Seek Closer Ties in Face of Challenges
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad started a two-day official visit to Syria on Thursday in a bid to strengthen political and economic relations amid mounting international pressures on both Tehran and Damascus.

"The visit sends a strong message that the two countries are not isolated," Syrian political analyst Fayez Sala told Xinhua.

During his stay, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to hold two meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, one to sign several economic and cultural agreements, while the other, a closed-door meeting, to discuss regional and international issues of common concern, disclosed an Iranian diplomat who asked not to be named.

"The visit comes in a very sensitive and complicated situation, because the two sides are both facing massive international pressures," the official said, adding that the visit "highlighted the important strategic ties between the two countries."
Both on the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, Tehran and Damascus are also both accused by Washington of taking insufficient actions to prevent armed opponents of the US-led coalition forces from crossing into Iraq.

"Meetings of high-ranking officials are necessary when the two countries both facing pressures and threats from the United States, " Sala said.

Both Iran and Syria are now entangled in their foreign affairs.

Syria is facing mounting international pressures over its alleged role in the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri while Iran has been in the hot water over its disputed nuclear program.

Washington urged Damascus to stop obstructing the UN probe into Hariri's murder and respond positively to the requests by the UN investigation commission, threatening to refer Syria to the UN Security Council for further actions if Damascus does not cooperate.

For Iran, the United States, Britain, France and Germany have threatened to refer Tehran to the Security Council after it has resumed nuclear research recently and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, will hold an emergency meeting in early February on the issue.

"Tehran and Damascus maintain a strategic alliance, so they support each other on both the Hariri probe and Iran's nuclear issue," Sala said.

"Damascus shows support to Iran's right of peaceful nuclear utilization while Tehran stresses that the Hariri probe must be based on a just and legal framework and avoid a forehand allegations," he added.

In addition, both Syria and Iran back the Hezbollah, a radical Shiite militia movement, which is branded by Washington as a terrorist group.

Washington also backs disarming the group under UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

"The two countries insist on the legal existence of Hezbollah and oppose to disarming the group as long as the Sabaa farm is occupied by Israeli troops and Lebanese captives are still held in Israeli jails," Sala said.

"The stances of Tehran and Damascus are very clear regarding the issues of the region," Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on Wednesday. "Tehran and Damascus are against the foreign intervention in the Middle East affairs."

Close ties between Iran and Syria can be dated back to the Iran- Iraq war during 1980-1988, when Syria sided with Tehran against Iraq which was then ruled by Saddam Hussein.

The two countries also witnessed gradually improved economic cooperation and bilateral trade volume reached US$210 million in 2005, according to Syria's official al-Thawra newspaper.

(Xinhua News Agency January 20, 2006)

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