DAMASCUS: The presidents of Syria and Iran signed a visa-scrapping accord on Thursday, signaling even closer ties and brushing aside United States efforts to drive a wedge between the two allies.
â€œI am surprised by their call to keep a distance between the countries â€¦ when they raise the issue of stability and peace in the Middle East, and all the other beautiful principles,â€ Syrian President Bashar Assad told a news conference in Damascus with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
â€œWe need to further reinforce relations if the true objective is stability. We do not want others to give us lessons on our region, our history,â€ the Syrian president said.
Ahmadinejad, who flew in to Damascus earlier in the day and later met exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, stressed that ties between the two Muslim states, both outspoken critics of US ally Israel, were as â€œsolidâ€ as ever. â€œNothing can damage these relations,â€ he said.
On the same day in occupied Jerusalem, the United States and Israel resumed an annual â€œstrategic dialogueâ€ for the first time since US President Barack Obama assumed office in 2009, with Iran prominent on the agenda.
US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg met Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
Assad said his country was always on the alert against Israel.
â€œWe are always preparing ourselves for an Israeli aggression whether it is small or big scale,â€ he said.
Afterward, Ahmadinejad met Meshaal, Ahmed Jibril â€“ leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine â€“ and other Palestinian leaders critical of the peace process for talks focused on â€œthe Israeli threats made against Syria, Iran, the Palestinians and Lebanon,â€ a participant in the meeting said.
Ahmadinejad told the Palestinian leaders that â€œIran places itself solidly beside the Palestinian people, until their land is liberated,â€ the participant said, and that resistance was the â€œlikeliest path to liberation.â€
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington has been pressing Damascus to move away from Iran
Questioned on Clinton, Assad adopted an ironic tone.
â€œWe met today to sign a â€˜separation accordâ€™ between Syria and Iran, but because of a bad translation we ended up signing an accord on scrapping visas,â€ he quipped.
Assad said the agreement would serve â€œto further reinforce relations in all fields and at all levelsâ€ between the two countries, which have been close allies for the past three decades.
In the face of US-led efforts to slap new sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its controversial nuclear program, he also defended Iranâ€™s right to pursue uranium enrichment.
â€œTo forbid an independent state the right to enrichment amounts to a new colonialist process in the region,â€ he said.
The visit came after Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Syria was determined to help Iran and the West engage in a â€œconstructiveâ€ dialogue over Tehranâ€™s nuclear program.
Western governments suspect that the program in Iran is cover for a drive to produce a bomb.
Tehran vehemently denies the allegation.
On the eve of Ahmadinejadâ€™s visit, Clinton was blunter than ever about the bid to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran.
Testifying in the Senate, she said William Burns, the third-ranking US diplomat, â€œhad very intense, substantive talks in Damascusâ€ last week on what was the highest-level US mission to the Syrian capital in five years.
Syria is being asked â€œgenerally to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran, which is so deeply troubling to the region as well as to the United States,â€ Clinton said.