AS talks in Tehran entered their fourth day, Iranian and Syrian leaders had still not patched up their differences on the Gulf crisis. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's trip to Tehran over the weekend - the first in 11 years - is seen by Western diplomats in the Middle East as a Syrian attempt to persuade Iran not to help Iraq overcome sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Syria has been Iran's staunchest ally, and both countries have described their alliance as ``strategic.''
Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mr. Assad agreed to condemn Iraq's annexation of Kuwait, but so far have failed to adopt a common stance on the deployment of international forces in the Arabian Peninsula.
[Assad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, did agree that, despite the Gulf crisis, Israel remained the big danger in the Middle East, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported, according to Reuters. ``The struggle against Israel is paramount,'' Mr. Khamenei told Assad.]
The differences between Syria and Iran involve how to deal with the economic sanctions against Iraq, as well as how to address ultimate security concerns in the Gulf region.
Mr. Rafsanjani told Assad that Iran will probably ship food and medicines to Iraq, say Iranian diplomats contacted in Tehran. Iran does not view such action as contravening UN Security Council resolutions.
Rafsanjani explained, these diplomats say, that Iran and Iraq have decided once and for all to settle their dispute (over which they fought an eight-year war), and that whatever the outcome of the present crisis or the fate of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iran will have to cooperate with Iraq over the long term. Therefore, it feels the need to help the Iraqi people survive the international embargo.
The Iranian President expressed the view that the United States had seized the pretext of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to deploy troops in the Gulf in order to gain control of its oil fields and to establish permanent bases on the Arabian Peninsula.
According to Sana, the official Syrian press agency, Assad told Rafsanjani that the main problem at present is Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. Assad refused to condemn the US deployment in the region, but added that US troops should leave the Arabian Peninsula as soon as a solution to the Kuwaiti problem is found.
Indeed, according to Syrian and Iranian diplomats contacted in Paris, both governments are growing increasingly nervous about Washington's real intentions.
``Right after the beginning of the crisis, we understood that the US administration had taken the firm decision to get rid of President Saddam Hussein,'' says a senior Syrian diplomat. ``A few weeks later, we got the word from Washington that this was no more the case. And last week we were told that the Bush administration would be satisfied when Iraqi troops leave Kuwait and that it wouldn't oppose negotiations between the two countries which might lead to financial and territorial concessions by the Kuwaitis to the Iraqis.''
The Syrian diplomat concludes: ``Syria and Iran suspect that Washington's aim is actually nothing more than the building of permanent US bases in the Gulf. That's why President Assad said clearly in Tehran that once the Kuwaiti government is restored, US troops should leave the region. That's also why the Iranian leadership is loudly criticizing the US deployment and is increasingly tempted to treat the Iraqi leaders with lenience.''
Syrian diplomats contacted in Damascus Sunday added that Assad told Rafsanjani he ordered troops to Saudi Arabia alongside Western armies because he didn't want non-Arab forces to have a monopoly on the defense of Gulf states.
They say Assad also told Rafsanjani that if he ignored smugglers operating from Iran and carrying food to Iraqi border villages, he could then avoid making the official decision to send goods to Iraq.
The two leaders also discussed how to ensure security in the Gulf once the present crisis is over and agreed that only countries of the region should take part in any future peacekeeping force.
But the phrase ``countries of the region'' actually hides another disagreement between Iran and Syria, says an Iranian journalist contacted in Tehran. Syria believes that the security of the Arabian Peninsula should be ensured by Arab countries, including Syria. Iran believes security in the Gulf should be ensured by countries bordering it, including Iran, which is not an Arab country.
Discussion between Syria and Iran on possible long-term security agreements in the Gulf are far from irrelevant, adds a senior European diplomat who just returned from Iran.
``Once the crisis is over, the international community will have to tackle the problem of global security in this oil-rich region and both the Western and the Arab world should realize that no stability in the Gulf is possible without Iran's cooperation,'' he says. ``The international community should pay more attention to Iranian leadership fears of ending up among the eventual losers of the present crisis.''