- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

ROME (AP) - Syrian President Bashar Assad told an Italian newspaper that he is ready to act as a mediator between the West and Iran, and would like to meet U.S. President Barack Obama.

Rome daily La Repubblica this week quoted Assad as saying that Syrian and U.S. interests are “80 percent” in agreement, and that the first steps of the Obama administration in Mideast policy are encouraging.

Addressing growing tensions with Tehran over its nuclear program, Assad said he is “ready to mediate with Iran” but added that Western governments must come up with a concrete proposal.

“For now I have only received an invitation to play a role,” Assad was quoted as saying. “We need a plan, rules and specific mechanisms to bring to Tehran.”

Assad did not elaborate on who had asked him to act as a mediator, and Syrian government officials could not immediately be reached on Thursday for comment about the article.

The Syrian leader said he would like to meet Obama and praised him for shutting down the Guantanamo Bay military prison and pledging to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq.

“It would be a very positive signal,” the Rome paper quoted him as saying. “But I’m not after a souvenir photo. I hope I can see him to talk.”

Assad, who succeeded his father and longtime dictator Hafez Assad, heads an authoritarian regime in which the media treat him as a near divinity, tens of thousands of his pictures are on display and critics are jailed for speaking out.

During a visit to Syria in September, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stressed that Damascus could play a role in persuading Iran to cooperate.

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

In the interview, Assad also said he is open to renewed negotiations with Israel but expressed concern over what he sees as Israeli society’s turn toward the right-wing as Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to lead a new government.

“I’m not worried at the thought of Netanyahu, but by Israeli society’s turning right, as reflected by Netanyahu’s rise,” he told the Rome newspaper. “That’s the biggest obstacle to peace.”

Turkey’s government mediated indirect talks between Syria and Israel last year, but Damascus suspended the discussions after Israel launched its war in the Gaza Strip.



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