TEHRAN, Iran – Israel has ordained its own destruction by invading Lebanon, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday, according to the state news agency.
Addressing the clerical staff of the Friday prayer sermons in Tehran, Ahmadinejad said Israel and its supporters "should know that they cannot end the business that they have begun."
"The occupying regime of Palestine has actually pushed the button of its own destruction by launching a new round of invasion and barbaric onslaught on Lebanon," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the president as saying.
A top Iranian negotiator reportedly visited Damascus on Thursday for talks on the Lebanese crisis with the Syrian and Hezbollah leaders, starkly outlining the shape of the triparty alliance arrayed against Israel.
The reported meetings also supported the Israeli and U.S. insistence that Syria and Iran have a powerful influence with the Shiite Hezbollah organization and its guerrilla fighters.
In Washington White House spokesman Tony Snow said Syria and Iran "are playing leading roles" in the conflict in Lebanon "and need to step up" to the task of finding a solution.
"We have already made it clear to both parties what is necessary and what is necessary is for Hezbollah to lay down arms and choose a political rather than a military track."
Snow's remarks reinforced those of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after the Syrians held out their diplomatic hand to the United States this week. The top American diplomat said there already were sufficient contacts and the Syrians were aware of what they needed to do — stop supporting Hezbollah and press it to disarm.
The reported Damascus meeting, which could not be confirmed by FOX News and which sources inside Syria and Iran say did not happen, was reported by two Iranian news agencies and Kuwait's Al-Siyassah newspaper, which is known for its opposition to the Syrian regime.
The newspaper said the meeting was called to discuss ways to maintain supplies to Hezbollah fighters with "Iranian arms flowing through Syrian territories."
Al-Siyassah said it learned of the meeting from "well-informed Syrian sources" it did not identify. It reported that Nasrallah — who Israel would try to kill if it knew his whereabouts — was moving through Damascus with Syrian guards in an intelligence agency car. He was dressed in civilian clothes, not his normal clerical garb.
The Mehr news agency in Iran said Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was in Damascus for the meeting, but gave no details. Similar reports were carried by the Iranian Labor News Agency and the Fars agency.
Al-Siyassah said Larijani was to have met Syrian President Bashar Assad and Nasrallah.
Hezbollah officials reached by The Associated Press in Beirut Thursday said they did not know if Nasrallah had traveled to Damascus.
Iranian state-run media did not mention Larijani's travels. A spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said there "was no information" on the reported trip.
In Damascus, Iranian Embassy No. 2 Ghazanfar Rokn-Abadi would neither confirm nor deny the reported meetings, telling The Associated Press: "We, too, heard and read in the media this report."
Syrian foreign ministry officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the meeting.
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki made a hastily arranged visit to Malaysia for talks on the Lebanese crisis with other foreign ministers in Kuala Lumpur for a security conference that Rice also attended after her diplomatic foray in the Middle East and Rome earlier in the week.
It was not clear whether his visit had anything to do with Rice's schedule. A U.S. official rejected any possibility for Rice to meet him. She, however, cut short her visit by one night and was believed headed back to the Middle East.
Because of its strong alliance with Tehran and Hezbollah, Damascus can serve as a link through which the Bush administration, no matter how much it may loathe the prospect, could talk to Hezbollah and Iran about ending the Lebanese crisis.
Rice said this week that America's poor relationship with Syria had been overstated, noting the U.S. still had a diplomatic mission there and State Department officials working in the Syrian capital.
"The problem isn't that people haven't talked to the Syrians. It's that the Syrians haven't acted," she said. "It's not as if we don't have diplomatic relations," she said. "We do."
The U.S. ambassador to Syria was recalled last year after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syrian officials have been blamed for the murder, which Damascus denies.
The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on Syria, blaming it for fueling the insurgency in Iraq and supporting Islamic militant groups in the Palestinian territories, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Syria denies the charges but hosts exiled leaders of those groups in Damascus.
Regardless, Syrian officials have said they were ready to talk with Washington.
"If the United States wants to involve in Syria's diplomacy, of course Damascus is more than willing to engage," Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
But Syrian officials said Damascus would only cooperate within the framework of a broader Middle East peace initiative that would include a return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981.
Analysts said Syria's role could not be ignored if a solution to the crisis was to be found.
"Syria is a major player in regional politics. After being sidelined and isolated for a long time, it now holds the keys to many of the region's crises," says Amin Kammouriyeh, a political analyst with Lebanon's leading An-Nahar daily.
Writing in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat this week, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, director of Al-Arabiya television, said Syria remained a pariah state in the eyes of Washington, which would find it hard to engage Syria seriously after blaming it for supporting the insurgency in Iraq and Harriri's death while criticizing its alliance with Iran.
"This is why opening that door will not be easy," he wrote.
But there is increasing pressure on the United States to engage its enemies. At the diplomatic gathering in Rome Wednesday to seek solution to the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said a lasting end to the conflict would "require the constructive engagement of the countries in the region, including Syria and Iran."