DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The leaders of Iran and Syria reaffirmed their support on Tuesday for what they characterized as “Palestinian resistance,” a defiant message to the United States and its Middle East allies, which are uneasy over American efforts to forge closer ties with Iran.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who met with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, also spent time with the leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian radical groups based in Damascus. Iran is a strong supporter of Islamic militants in the region, including Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon.
The Iranian president’s visit to Syria coincides with efforts by the United States to improve strained ties with both nations. Two American diplomatic envoys, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, left Washington on Tuesday for Syria, their second visit in less than three months, to explore ways to ease tensions between the United States and Syria, the State Department said. Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Assad made little specific mention of American diplomatic efforts at a news conference after their meeting.
But Mr. Ahmadinejad boasted that unnamed countries, which he said had tried for years to put pressure on Iran and Syria, now say they need support from the two countries to solve regional problems.
“Those who one day called Iran and Syria part of ‘the axis of evil’ now want to develop relations with Iran and Syria,” he said.
He also contended that the Syria-Iran alliance had achieved “victories” in preventing “the big powers’ offensive to dominate the region.”
“Syria and Iran have been from the very beginning united and in agreement to stand on the side of the Palestinian resistance,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said, adding, “We see that the resistance will continue until all occupied territories are liberated.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials have been sending mixed messages in response to President Obama’s calls for dialogue — at times taking a moderate tone, and at others talking a tough line.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is visiting the Middle East, said Tuesday that the United States was waiting to see how Iran responded to Mr. Obama’s outreach, but so far, he said, the response from Mr. Ahmadinejad has been “not very encouraging.”
Mr. Gates sought to reassure American allies in the Arab world, who are concerned that Iran will benefit from a dialogue with the United States. Allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel, fear that Iran is trying to spread its influence across the Middle East, with its support of Hamas, Hezbollah and other militant groups.
There has been widespread speculation in the Middle East that the Obama administration would try to forge a bargain with Iran, in which Washington would press Israel for concessions in the peace effort with the Palestinians in exchange for Iran’s rolling back its nuclear program.
“The United States will be very open and transparent about these contacts, and we will keep our friends informed of what is going on so nobody gets surprised,” Mr. Gates said at a news conference in Egypt before heading to Saudi Arabia.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company