DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – The presidents of Iran and Syria held talks in Damascus on Thursday in a show of solidarity between two regional allies facing prospects of showdowns with the U.N. Security Council.
Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on his first trip to Damascus since taking office in August, went straight from the airport to President Bashar al-Assad’s palace at the start of a two-day visit.
Officials said the two leaders would discuss regional developments and economic cooperation, and hold a joint news conference afterwards.
Ahmadinejad’s visit comes at a time of intense pressure on Syria and Iran, caught in separate standoffs with the international community.
The United States and the European Union’s three biggest powers, Britain, France and Germany, said this month Iran’s resumption of nuclear research meant it should be referred to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions.
Iran removed the U.N. seals on its uranium enrichment equipment but says it has no intention of building nuclear arms and seeks atomic energy only to generate electricity.
Syria also faces pressure from the council, which passed a resolution in October demanding it cooperate fully with a U.N. inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri or risk unspecified further action.
Syria has denied any involvement in the murder but has said it will not allow investigators to question Assad in the case.
Neither Syria nor Iran face an imminent threat of military action or broad sanctions at the council, but will come under more diplomatic pressure on every front, analysts say.
Assad was the first head of a foreign state to visit Iran after Ahmadinejad, a religious conservative, took office.
Iran’s new president seized that opportunity to vow closer cooperation in the face of U.S. pressure and is returning the visit at a time when Assad finds himself particularly isolated.
Longtime fixtures on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, Tehran and Damascus are the main backers of Lebanon’s Hizbollah group, itself under pressure to disarm in line with a U.N. resolution that last year forced Syria to pull its troops out of its smaller neighbour after a 29-year military presence.
Hizbollah, the only Lebanese group to keep its arms after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, helped force Israel to end its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
Both Syria and Iran accuse the United States of backing the interests of their arch-foe Israel at the expense of Muslims and Arabs. They defend Hizbollah’s right to resist the Jewish state.
Ahmadinejad has caused an international furore by calling for Israel to be wiped out and describing the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed, as a myth.