- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

TEHRAN — Iran yesterday urged Islamic states in the Middle East to create a powerful alliance and remain vigilant in the face of “U.S. and Israeli plots,” a call coming a day after Syria and Iran declared they would form a “united front” against any threats.

The United States has escalated its criticism of both Syria and Iran, demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon and accusing Tehran of running a covert nuclear weapons program.

The United States also has said both countries, which are under U.S. economic sanctions, need to do more to prevent insurgents from using their territory to cross into Iraq.

The United States has accused Iran of seeking to produce nuclear weapons. President Bush has labeled Iran part of an “axis of evil” with North Korea and prewar Iraq, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month labeled Tehran an “outpost of tyranny.” Yesterday, Mr. Bush said Syria was “out of step” with other nations in the Middle East, and the United States would work with other countries to pressure Damascus to remove its troops from Lebanon.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa told CNN earlier this month that Syria has 15,000 to 16,000 troops in Lebanon.

U.S. relations with Syria have deteriorated, especially since the attack that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blamed Monday’s car bombing in Beirut on Syria, but the Syrian government denied responsibility. Washington withdrew its ambassador from Syria in response to the assassination.

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaking after a meeting with Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari, said it was important to strengthen relations among Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other Islamic states in the region, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

The relationships between Shi’ite Iran and Arab countries have been rocky for some time. They were strained after the 1979 revolution in Iran and worsened during the eight-year war against Iran launched by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

All Arab countries except Syria supported Iraq in the war out of fear that Iran’s revolution would spread.

Mr. Rafsanjani, who is widely expected to run in Iran’s June presidential election, said the United States and Israel were trying to create divisions among the region’s countries, which he said must “stay completely vigilant vis-a-vis the U.S. and Israeli plots in this regard.” Mr. al-Otari was quoted by IRNA as saying Israel was “the source of instability” in the Middle East, and Syria would continue supporting the Palestinians and Lebanese in their struggle.

Both Syria and Iran back Hezbollah, which Washington considers a terrorist group in part because it sponsors Palestinian violence and funds suicide bombings that have killed dozens of Israelis. Hezbollah operates mostly in southern Lebanon and has carried out a cross-border war with Israel for years. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Hezbollah was responsible for about 80 percent of terror attacks on Israel.

On Wednesday, Syria and Iran said they would form a “united front” to confront any threats against them. But the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, later said in a television interview that “we don’t need an alliance against the United States.”

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