Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and his Syrian counterpart,… (Atta Kenare, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Beirut and Tehran — Syria's president paid a one-day visit to Iran on Saturday to discuss "the exceptional ties" between the two countries, but the meeting came amid a cluster of regional developments that could divide them.
The substance of the talks between Bashar Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was unclear, but on the agenda were the Iranian leader's upcoming visit to Lebanon and the intensified power struggles over the formation of a new government in neighboring Iraq.
Assad's visit to Tehran also comes after a recent improvement in U.S.-Syrian relations that is worrying to Tehran, which views Damascus as one of its strategic partners in its ideological campaign against the West.
Syria's official SANA news agency said that Assad would meet with Ahmadinejad to discuss "the exceptional ties" between the two countries. Assad's official delegation included a number of top Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and Vice President Farouq Shara.
Iranian state television aired the red-carpet arrival festivities live, showing Ahmadinejad and Assad standing side by side, and reported that Ahmadinejad would award his Syrian counterpart a medal of valor for supporting the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
After the flowery formalities, the two leaders immediately retreated into a meeting and got down to business, discussing bilateral and regional issues as well as "Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine," the Iranian Students News Agency reported.
Assad's visit comes on the heels of increased political turbulence in Iraq, where Iyad Allawi, former prime minister and fierce Iran critic, recently said that he had asked the Syrian authorities to get Iran to stay out of his battle for the premiership. The incumbent, Nouri Maliki, appears to be headed toward retaining his post with the backing of cleric Muqtada Sadr, an ally of Iran.
The meeting also comes less than two weeks before Ahmadinejad's planned visit to Lebanon, where tensions run high between Hezbollah and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Sunni Muslim party over a United Nations tribunal's investigation of the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in 2005.
Unconfirmed Arab news reports have said that Assad had asked Ahmadinejad to postpone his visit to Lebanon given the delicate political situation, saying, "This is not the right time." Some analysts say such comments might be Assad "delineating his territory" in his wish for Lebanon to be more in the Syrian sphere of influence than the Iranian one.
Reports have emerged that the tribunal might indict Hezbollah members in Hariri's killing, leading some analysts to say the row over the tribunal could ignite sectarian strife in Lebanon and push the country to collapse.
Aside from regional and international issues, the talks reportedly included discussions over the effects of the new set of sanctions imposed on Iran by Western states and how Syria could help to alleviate their sting on the Islamic Republic.
Assad's visit might also illustrate an attempt to show Syria's commitment to its close ties with Iran after a recent meeting between top U.S. and Syrian officials, in which the Washington officials tried to persuade Damascus to return to peace negotiations with Iran's arch-foe Israel.
Last week, Moallem had a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York in which she reportedly tried to make the case for the negotiations. According to the State Department, the meeting was the first between a secretary of State and Syria's top diplomat in three years.
Special correspondent Sandels reported from Beirut and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.