DAMASCUS // Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, is to meet with major regional allies Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas in Damascus today, in what is seen here as a show of strength in the face of growing international pressure on Tehran. The visit comes a week after senior US officials held talks with the Syrian administration on intelligence issues, the latest move in a diplomatic push by Washington designed, at least in part, to weaken the close ties between Syria and Iran.
It also follows a heightened war of words among Israel, Syria and Lebanon, which appeared to be taking the Middle East towards yet another outbreak of conflict. Although the rhetoric may have been toned down slightly in recent days, Mr Ahmadinejad's scheduled meetings are likely to do little to allay fears of a coming storm. "Israel has been making threats and mobilising its forces so this is Iran's response," said Tharbit Salem, an independent Syrian political commentator. "Iran is saying, 'we are not isolated, we have strong alliances, we have powerful friends that can strike Israel'. This is, in a way, Iran mobilising its forces."
Concern has been rising within the international community over Tehran's nuclear programme, continued in defiance of United Nations resolutions. Attempts to broker a compromise have thus far failed. Tehran insists its nuclear project is civilian in character but, with uranium enrichment accelerating beyond typical civilian requirements, there is a growing international consensus that Iran's real purpose is to manufacture atomic weapons.
Israel, the Middle East's only country with nuclear arms - weapons it acquired outside of international legal conventions - has insisted it will not tolerate a similarly armed Iran. Tel Aviv has said all options, including military strikes, remain open in order to stop that from happening. One of Iran's key ways of exerting pressure on Israel is through Hizbollah, the Lebanese Islamist resistance movement that has fought a series of conflicts with Israel since the latter's invasion and occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s.
The most recent war, in 2006, had a devastating effect on Lebanon but ended with Israel failing to defeat Hizbollah's disciplined, well-trained and well-equipped guerilla fighters. Syria, which remains technically at war with Israel over the illegal occupation of the Golan Heights, is similarly a major ally of Hizbollah. The US and Israel accuse Syria of channeling Iranian weapons to the militants. Syria insists its backing is only political.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist resistance movement, is also backed by both Syria and Iran; the group's headquarters are in Damascus. "Ahmadinejad will meet with senior Hizbollah and Hamas people and I am sure there will be some detailed discussions on what will happen in the event of Israel starting a summer war," said one Syrian analyst who asked not to be identified because of the nature of his comments. "The Iranians want to look Hamas, Hizbollah and Syria in the eye and to be sure what they will do if the fighting starts.
"Iran wants to know these other fronts against Israel will open and it will want to make sure its allies have all they need to fight back." The Syrian regime has said publicly it does not want war and has warned that any conflict will engulf the region, rather than remain isolated like the 2009 Gaza offensive or the Lebanon war of 2006. Syria, long under a diplomatic freeze from the West, has enjoyed a thawing of late, most recently with the US announcing it would return an ambassador to Damascus after five years of leaving the post vacant. France, which led the drive to restore diplomatic relations, has asked Damascus to mediate with Tehran over its nuclear programme, something the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, this week said he would do, although the detail of his remarks were unlikely to satisfy western nations.
"Sanctions are not a solution [to the problem] between Iran and the West," Mr Muallem said, in reference to efforts at putting in place a fourth set of tougher UN restrictions against Tehran. "We are trying to engage a constructive dialogue between the two parties in order to reach a peaceful solution." Mr Muallem insisted Iran "does not have a nuclear military programme". Another issue that may come in today's talks between the Syrian president Bashar al Assad and Mr Ahmadinejad are the impending elections in Iraq, according to Syrian analysts.
The Iraq election is being viewed, in some circles, as a struggle for influence over the oil-rich country between the United States and Iran. Syria has publicly fallen out with Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, after he accused Damascus of harbouring anti-government insurgents behind a string of deadly bombings. Mr al Maliki and his Dawa party have a close relationship with Iran, a fact that could somewhat strain ties between Damascus and Tehran.
"Syria wants anyone but Maliki to win the elections, while Iran, despite some ups an downs, is a big supporter of Maliki," said another Syrian analyst, who asked not to be named because Syria officially insists it remains neutral over the ballot. "I think that could make for an interesting exchange of opinions." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org