Published February 22, 2005
Iran and Syria on Wednesday said they would unite against any challenges or threats to their nations' livelihoods, a move that could raise the stakes in the ongoing international dramas involving both countries.
The announcement came on the same day that a large explosion supposedly rocked the southern Iranian city of Dailam (search), but details remained sketchy about what happened.
On the alliance issue, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref (search), after meeting with Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari (search), told reporters in Tehran: "We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats."
"This meeting, which takes place at this sensitive time, is important, especially because Syria and Iran face several challenges and it is necessary to build a common front," he added.
Both Iran and Syria are in the midst of international disputes with the United States. The two have had warm relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1978, and Syria supported Iran during the latter's 1980-88 war against Iraq.
Observers said an alliance of any kind between the two nations wouldn't be good.
"They feel the ground shifting under them" as democracy begins to take root in neighboring Iraq, Robert McFarlane (search), who served as national security adviser to President Reagan, told FOX News.
"It's a very misguided effort, this idea of cooperation between Iran and Syria," McFarlane continued. "They've wreaked years and years of devastation to Lebanon and the sponsorship of terrorism."
Syria was invited into Lebanon in 1976 to quell that country's nascent civil war. The war did not end until 1990, and Syria has loosely controlled Lebanon ever since.
Iran has been the main provider of funding and weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah (search), the fundamentalist Shiite militia, terrorist group and political party that forced U.S. and French troops out of Beirut in 1983 and the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon during the 1990s.
"[Iran and Syria] have been joined for a long time in creating terrorism in the region," Air Force Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Tom McInerney told FOX News. "That shouldn't be any surprise to any of us, they've just now announced it publicly."
Sanctions for Syria?
In one sign that the situation in Syria is far from rosy, the United States on Tuesday recalled its ambassador to signal displeasure with Damascus over Monday's killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri (search).
Al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim billionaire credited with rebuilding post-civil war Lebanon, was killed in a massive car bombing a few months after he had taken a stance against Syria's presence in his country.
The Lebanese opposition believes Syria was involved in the assassination, while the pro-Syrian Lebanese government has obliquely pointed the finger at Islamic fundamentalists or Israel. The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Lebanon find those responsible.
Edward Djerejian, director of the Baker Institute at Rice University, said Hariri's killing was just the latest of a series of "horrible" political assassinations in Lebanon.
"Instead of [being removed] through the ballot box, Lebanese leaders have been brutally killed," Djerejian told FOX News. He added that Hariri's killing "really is causing all the issues of Lebanon's independence, sovereignty to come to the floor."
U.S. officials are considering imposing new sanctions on Syria because of its refusal to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon and or kick Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas out of Damascus.
American officials also believe many Iraqi insurgents are being supplied and directed by Saddam-era officials based in Syria, and that many foreign fighters in Iraq come through Syria.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week that the United States would "continue to consider other options" when asked if new sanctions against Syria would be pushed by the American government.
"The Syrian problem is a serious problem," Rice added. "Our problems with the Syrian government are not new."
The international community has to back sanctions in order for them to be effective, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison told FOX News Wednesday.
"Once again, it takes away a lot of the leverage of the world to try to help people who want to be free," said the Texas Republican, referring to how some countries seem unwilling to force sanctions upon Syria.
"We don't have anyone standing up saying, 'We should have sanctions, we should act swiftly to show Syria and the world that the people of Lebanon can stand up on their own determination,'" she added.
The U.S. and France, Syria and Lebanon's former colonial power, jointly sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution last month reiterating "strong support for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon ... under the sole and exclusive authority of the Government of Lebanon."
McFarlane said the United Nations should take a stronger stance in telling Syria to get out of Lebanon — or else.
"I think in the wake of this tragedy [the assassination of Hariri], it's timely for the U.N. to pass another resolution, with some teeth in it this time, to require Syrian to withdraw," he said. "It's been a continuing menace for years and years, but this marks an appropriate time for Syria to withdraw its troops."
Added McInerney: "The Lebanese people are sick of the Syrians. Let's take advantage of that."
The U.S. has a long and complicated relationship with Syria, which despite being on the State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring countries, and a perpetual foe of Israel, has always maintained full diplomatic relations with Washington.
Syria joined the U.S.-led international coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, and Syrian intelligence contributed to U.S. efforts to track down Al Qaeda members after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Iran is also on America's and the international community's terror watch list.
President Bush has branded Iran part of an "axis of evil," along with pre-war Iraq and North Korea, calling it "the world's primary state sponsor of terror."
He also has accused Tehran of attempting to build up its atomic-energy program in order to make nuclear weapons; oil- and natural gas-rich Iran argues that its program is legitimate and only for electricity generation.
Not helping matters were unnamed U.S. officials telling The Washington Post last week that spy drones have been flying over Iran for nearly a year to seek evidence of nuclear weapons programs, drones that many Iranian witnesses took for UFOs.
Iran's intelligence chief on Wednesday threatened to shoot down the unmanned surveillance crafts.
Meanwhile, Russia on Wednesday confirmed long-standing rumors and said it planned to sell Syria advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, although it insists that shoulder-fired weapons aren't in the mix. Moscow had earlier denied it would supply missiles to its Cold War client.
The United States and Israel have urged Moscow to drop any such plans, saying new Russian arms supplies would only strengthen militants in the Middle East.
"Talks are underway with this country to sell it Strelets air defense short-range missile systems," the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
"We are very concerned about any potential sale of weapons to Syria," the U.S. State Department said in a statement Wednesday. "As we become aware of such sales, we will raise that issue with the appropriate government officials. The transfer of weapons to Syria, of these weapons discussed in the press, could trigger sanctions under U.S. law for tranfer of lethal military equipment to a state sponsor of terrorism."
Amb. Robert Kimmitt, former undersecretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, said the current U.S. president's upcoming trip to Europe could be a great opportunity to tackle Iran and Syria head-on.
"They have been an 'axis of instability' in that part of the world for some time," Kimmitt told FOX News.
He added that it would be important for Bush to have face-to-face discussions with European leaders about Iran, Syria "and any other nations that are supporting terrorism elsewhere" in order to garner multilateral support.
"This face-to-face dialogue is something we've been missing for awhile. It's a great first step for this president," Kimmitt said.
Blast in Iran?
As of midday Wednesday, there was no clear answer whether there had been a large blast in southern Iran or what caused it.
Iranian state television initially reported that an unknown aircraft fired a missile in a desert area near the southern city of Dailam in Bushehr province, the location of a nuclear power plant.
The television channel later said, however, that the explosion may have been caused by a fuel tank dropping from an Iranian plane.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards said there was no attack in Iran and denied reports of a falling fuel tank.
"A powerful explosion was heard this morning on the outskirts of Dailam in Bushehr province (search). Witnesses said that the missile was fired from an unknown plane 20 km [12 miles] from the city," Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam television channel said.
The incident was not reported on Iran's Persian-language television channels.
An interior ministry spokesman, Jahanbakhsh Khanjani, later told The Associated Press: "An airplane flew over Deylam [sic] today. Minutes later, there was an explosion."
"But we have no reason to say it's a hostile attack," he added. "There is a big possibility that it was friendly fire by mistake. Several such mistaken friendly-fire incidents have been reported there in recent days."
Another senior official said the blast was caused during dam construction. A military official later confirmed that the construction caused the blast.
"The explosion that occurred in the Dailam region was that of dam-building operations," Ali Agha Mohammadi, a member of the Supreme National Security Council, told the Iranian Students' News Agency.
Israeli security officials said their military was not involved. Israeli warplanes in 1981 destroyed the French-built Osirak nuclear power plant outside Baghdad.
The Russian embassy in Tehran also said there was no attack on the nuclear power plant, according to Reuters. Russia built the Bushehr nuclear reactor, which has not yet gone into operation.
U.S. officials said they had no information about a blast, but were checking on the matter.
"We've seen the reports, and we're looking into it," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Separately, a Defense Department spokesman stressed to Reuters that "it is U.S. policy to deal with Iran in a diplomatic manner."
The State Department also said it had no information but was looking into the blast reports.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.