In Athens, expatriates bearing a Syrian flag show their solidarity with… (John Kolesidis, Reuters )
Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — In a sign that Syria's crackdown on dissent is fraying one of its few alliances in the region, an Iranian lawmaker said in an interview published Thursday that his nation should be supporting the protesters and not the Syrian regime.
Ahmad Avaei, a member of the Iranian parliament's national security commission, said the fact that Syrian President Bashar Assad joined Iran in opposition to Israel and support for Lebanon's armed Hezbollah movement was no longer reason enough to continue backing Assad's government.
"The fact is that supporting the Syrian rulers at any cost was not right, as those who staged the protests were Muslims, and their protests were legitimate," Avaei said in remarks quoted by the semiofficial Fars News Agency.
"Unfortunately, the Syrian leadership has realized too late the necessity of entering the reform process and should have done that much earlier to avoid the current crisis," the lawmaker said.
Avaei was the second leading Iranian official to publicly chastise Syria for a military crackdown that by the United Nations' count has killed more than 2,200 Syrians since protests against Assad's government began in March.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said over the weekend that Syria's opposition had "legitimate demands" and Assad should heed them.
In a sermon Wednesday in which he praised revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei avoided all mention of Syria, focusing instead on his fear that the "tyrannical and despotic United States" would expand its influence in the countries hit by uprisings.
Syria and Iran for decades have had few allies in the Middle East but each other and are bound by their material support for Hezbollah. Syria long has been a vital transit point for Iranian aid to Lebanon's militant Shiite Muslim organization. The European Union since early spring has accused Iran's Revolutionary Guard of helping Assad's security forces crush the Syrian uprising.
Iran previously had followed Assad's line that the uprising was the product of foreign conspiracy.
Iranian officials' switch to public criticism of the Syrian crackdown follows an apparently influential visit to Tehran late last month by Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, who supports the Syrian uprising and called efforts to crush it "fruitless."
Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, an Iranian analyst and journalist, said in an interview that Iran had sought to reach out to at least one opposition group in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah took the middle ground recently in Syria's conflict, saying last week that he supports both the government and reforms.
In a far more fiery speech reported Thursday in Lebanon, one of that country's top Shiite clerics warned leaders of the Arab world that if Syria and its armed allies Hezbollah and Hamas were in trouble, they were too.
"You are in the same boat," said Sheik Ahmad Qabalan. "Be vigilant in defeating the hellish scheme which not only targets Syria or the resistance in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza, but also targets … your systems, your people, your oil and your wealth."
Special correspondents Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Knickmeyer from Beirut.