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Iranian tourists in Syria: a sign of political coziness

By Ned TemkoStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 1984

Damascus, Syria

''These Iranians . . . ,'' said a Damascus hotelkeeper who caters to recently surging tourist traffic from Tehran. ''They are dirty people.'' This kind of popular resentment and prejudice - recalling age-old rifts between Persians and Arabs, Shiite and Sunni Muslims - is but one facet of a complex new partnership between muscularly secular Syria and Iran.

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Many foreign diplomats here see potential danger in the long run for Syria in its flowering relationship with Iran's militant Shiite regime. Even some Syrian officials seem concerned - especially in view of the recent grass-roots growth of Shiite militancy next door in Lebanon.

In a reference to this, one official remarked earlier this month: ''The greatest danger (in the present Lebanese crisis) would be to allow anarchy in west Beirut.''

It was only two years ago that the government of President Hafez Assad - himself a member of Syria's minority Alawite religion, a strain of Shiite Islam - crushed a challenge from the fundamentalist Sunni ''Muslim Brotherhood'' by besieging the northwest Syrian city of Hama. Thousands of people, according to residents quoted by Western news reports, were killed.

Yet Syrian officials play down the ''religious'' element in the relationship with Iran - such as Iran's training of Lebanese Shiite militants in eastern Lebanon, an activity that has at least tacit Syrian OK. Syria, like Iran, has denied charges of involvement in recent suicide assaults on American, French, and Israeli targets in Lebanon.

Instead, officials here stress the clear political, economic, and strategic gains for Syria in the relationship with Iran. Of these, there are many.

They must be especially welcome to Damascus at a time when Syria's ties with Arab neighbors - notably Jordan, longtime rival Iraq, and some Gulf oil states - have been strained. Moves to return Egypt to a leadership role in the Arab world have also unsettled Syria.

Economically, Iran has in effect more than filled the gap in aid to Syria left by recent trims in support from some Arab oil states. Largely by providing oil at a discount, for easy credit, or free, the Iranians have during the past year or so surpassed Saudi Arabia - which has not visibly cut aid to Damascus - as Syria's largest source of foreign economic support.

Western diplomats peg the value of current Iranian oil transfers and other assistance at about $1.2 billion yearly. Saudi aid is estimated at slightly under $1 billion.

Militarily, the Iranians are tying down Syria's powerful historical rival - Iraq - in a costly war of attrition.

Politically, the relationship with Iran gives Syria's tough and pragmatic President Assad an added card to wave at his foes - whether they be Israel and the Americans, or Iraq and the Jordanians.

Mr. Assad can wave that card at allies as well - at the Soviets or at Saudi Arabia, which fears the effects of Iran-style Shiite revivalism.

Most important, Syria's part of the bargain has included the shutdown of a pipeline that used to ferry Iraqi crude to the Mediterranean - sending Iraq scurrying to compensate, still imperfectly, by increasing the flow through a pipeline across Turkey. The Iraqis are negotiating for construction of a new pipeline through Jordan and have agreed with Turkey on an additional line there to transport liquefied gas.

The Syrians also reportedly fly quantities of Soviet-made military goods to Iran - although Western sources say the quantities involved do not appear ''enormous.''