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Tehran denies arms deal vs. Israel

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TEHRAN (AP) — Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman yesterday dismissed as a "media game" recent reports of a secret arms deal with Syria purportedly made in return for an agreement that Damascus would not hold peace talks with Israel.

Mohammed Ali Hosseini refused to provide confirmation of the deal and questioned how the media would know about it if it was confidential.

"This is a media game," said Mr. Hosseini during his weekly news briefing. "It is not confirmed."

The Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported Saturday that Iran would provide $1 billion to Syria for advanced weapons procurement and would assist the country with nuclear research and the development of chemical weapons, with the understanding that Damascus would not negotiate peace with Israel.

The deal was reportedly signed Thursday when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Syria, said the newspaper. Israeli media later rebroadcast the report.

Both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have publicly called for renewed peace talks recently, but they clashed over the specifics.

Mr. Assad demanded a guarantee that Israel would pull out of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 war. He also demanded a mediator or "honest broker" for the talks.

Mr. Olmert refused to commit in advance to a full withdrawal and indicated a preference for direct talks.

Syria is Iran's closest Arab ally. The two countries have had close relations since 1980 when Syria sided with Iran against Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Both countries face U.S. accusations of fueling violence in Iraq and supporting Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group, which Washington labels a terrorist organization. They are also accused of supporting militant anti-Israeli Palestinian groups, such as Hamas.

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