NICOSIA, Cyprus — Amid signs of escalating tension between Damascus and Tehran, Syrian President Hafez Assad on Tuesday sent a high-level envoy to reassure the Iranian regime of his continuing support.
The latest maneuvering follows several weeks of Arab press speculation concerning a possible shifting of alliances in the Persian Gulf region. For almost seven years, Syria has supported Iran in its war against Iraq, even though Syria and Iraq are both Arab states and Iran is not.
Now there is talk that Syria is getting ready to move away from the Tehran government.
The speculation intensified last week in the wake of reports that Assad met in Jordan two weeks ago with Iraq's President Saddam Hussein.
While Assad and the Iraqi leader both lead secular governments and rival wings of the Baath Socialist Party, an Arab nationalist group, they are bitter enemies and were long believed to be irreconcilable.
The fact that the two men agreed to meet is a significant breakthrough for Arab efforts to get Syria to return to the Arab fold by dropping its support of Iran.
There were reports that the meeting was arranged both by the Soviet Union, which is said to have agreed to a rescheduling of Syria's $15-billion military loans, and by Saudi Arabia, which reportedly offered assistance in the form of cash and petroleum exports, items once provided by Iran.
Tensions in Lebanon
Before Assad's meeting with Hussein, there had been speculation that Syria was preparing to downgrade its alliance with Iran because of brewing tension in Lebanon between Syria and Islamic fundamentalist forces loyal to Iran.
Syria, which has 25,000 troops in Lebanon, recently deployed a further 7,000 men in Beirut to subdue militia violence in the predominantly Muslim part of the Lebanese capital.
However, the Syrians stopped short of entering the southern suburbs of Beirut, a sprawling Muslim slum believed to be a stronghold of Hezbollah, the so-called "Party of God," which is financed and controlled by Tehran.
In recent months, Hezbollah has increasingly challenged the mainstream Shia Muslim movement, Amal, which is Syria's main ally in Lebanon.
Some Arab analysts have speculated that Syria, sensing that a confrontation with Iran was inevitable, decided to "cut the best deal possible" by agreeing to a warming of relations with Iraq at a time when Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union were offering formidable financial inducements to Damascus' dwindling treasury.
Other analysts recalled that Syria had played a similar game last June, when King Hussein of Jordan arranged a meeting between Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam and Iraq's foreign minister, Tarik Aziz.
The meeting was called off at the last moment when Iran agreed to a one-year renewal of its economic and petroleum assistance to Assad's regime.
'Friendly and Brotherly'
Syria's special envoy to Iran, Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh, appeared to indicate Tuesday that relations between the two countries will not change.
Shareh told Iranian President Ali Khamenei that relations will continue to be "friendly and brotherly," according to Tehran radio, monitored in Nicosia.
"Assad wanted me to tell you that despite all efforts from every side--of which you too are aware--Syria will remain on the side of the Islamic revolution of Iran," Shareh was quoted as saying.
The radio quoted the Iranian president as saying that "reactionaries" were concerned about the closeness of relations between Iran and Syria.
"Fortunately, today our relations with Syria are strong in every aspect," Khamenei was quoted.
Khamenei, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, thanked the Syrian government for its support to "Muslim and faithful Lebanese," a clear reference to Shia Muslim fundamentalists.
"It is our duty," Khamenei told Shareh, "to help these die-hard believers who are seriously fighting the regime which is occupying Jerusalem," a reference to Israel.
On the first day of his visit, Shareh also met with Prime Minister Hussein Moussavi, with whom he discussed "expanding and deepening relations," and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.