TEHRAN, Iran – The Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers on Saturday accused the United States of double standards over the Obama administration's decision to provide aid to rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, saying this will only prolong the conflict.
The remarks were the first official statements from Iran and Syria following U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement this week that Washington will provide, for the first time, non-lethal aid directly to Syria's rebels, in addition to $60 million in assistance to Syria's political opposition.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Tehran, Syria's Walid al-Moallem and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, stressed that whether Assad stays or goes will be decided in presidential elections scheduled for next year.
"Assad is Syria's legal president until the next elections. Individuals have the freedom to run as candidates. Until that time, Assad is Syria's president," Salehi said.
Iran is a staunch ally of the Syrian regime and has stood by the embattled Assad throughout the country's nearly 2-year-old conflict.
Kerry announced the aid at an international conference on Syria in Rome on Thursday. In the coming days, several European nations are expected to take similar steps in working with the military wing of the opposition to increase pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition.
Al-Moallem said Syria is facing a crisis in which "most of the universe" is taking part.
He directly accused Turkey and Qatar and other countries he did not name of supporting and funding "armed terrorist groups" operating in Syria, using the terminology employed by the Damascus regime to refer to the rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Al-Moallem said it was it's inconceivable that Washington allocates $60 million in assistance to Syrian opposition groups while it continues to "kill the Syrian people" through economic sanctions imposed against the country.
"If they truly wanted a political settlement they wouldn't punish the Syrian people and finance (opposition) groups with so-called non-lethal aid," he said. "Who are they kidding?"
The Damascus official stressed that Syria's sovereignty is a "red line."
"No one is allowed to infringe on Syrian national sovereignty," he said, adding that that the Syrian people will decide their own leaders through the ballot box. "We refuse to be a piece of chess in the hands of the international community."
His Iranian host, Salehi, said "double standards were being applied by certain countries that serve to prolong and deepen the Syrian crisis" and lead to more bloodshed.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.