DAMASCUS, SYRIA, JAN. 24 -- Syria's top troubleshooter flew home today after a two-day visit to Iran designed to bolster the two countries' long-standing alliance against Iraq, which has been strained by Syria's cooperation with the United States in the Persian Gulf crisis
Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has come under pressure from religious radicals to condemn the U.S. military presence in the gulf and to distance himself from Syria, which has contributed troops and political support to the U.S.-led coalition opposing Iraq. According to the official Syrian News Agency, Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Habibi, expressed "full agreement" that fighting in the gulf must end and Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait. Perhaps for Syrian home consumption, there was no reported repetition of Habibi's insistence, expressed when Khaddam and Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa arrived in Tehran Wednesday, on also "bringing about the departure of American forces from the region."
The Khaddam-Charaa mission took place amid Syrian concern that Rafsanjani might weaken Iranian-Syrian ties by giving in to the radicals.
Since the fighting began last week, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's son, Ahmed, has called for a holy war against the American forces. Radicals such as former interior minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi have played on deep-seated Iranian animosity toward the United States. Today Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called President Bush "a murderer and a criminal for massacring innocent people."
Perhaps in part to assuage such pressures, Rafsanjani sent a deputy prime minister to Ankara to express concern over Turkey's controversial decision to allow American warplanes to use Turkish air bases for raids against Iraq.
In his departure statement, Charaa rebutted the Islamic radicals' call for a holy war, arguing that Iraqi missile attacks on Israel did not constitute a war and had served only to encourage the Jewish state to request $13 billion in additional aid from Washington.
Today, Khaddam and Habibi were both quoted again as supporting Iraq's international borders and territorial integrity, diplomatic shorthand for warning Turkey not to invade northern Iraq. Ankara, Damascus and Tehran all repeatedly have proclaimed they would not be the first to intervene inside Iraq.
Diplomats here suggested that the radical clergy felt Rafsanjani's relative pragmatism risked allowing Saddam to replace Iran as the leader of militant Islam. Saddam has cast his battle against the U.S.-led alliance partly as an Islamic crusade against Western influence in the region, a theme of the Iranians' fundamentalist revolution.
The Syrian government is committed to the American-led coalition against Iraq, although it has sought to keep a low profile and stay out of the hostilities.
The nearly decade-old alliance between theocratic Tehran and secular Syria has weathered many serious crises -- over rival Lebanese Shiite militias, the continued detention of Western hostages in Lebanon and Syrian fears of threats from its own Islamic fundamentalists. Diplomats here have said Iran has not forgotten the key aid Syria provided during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when Damascus was the only major Arab power to side with Tehran against Baghdad.
But diplomats and Syrian observers have questioned the future of what is fundamentally an anti-Saddam alliance in the event of his downfall.
Iran and Syria could end up competing for influence in a postwar Iraq. If so, in theory at least, Iran might appear to have the upper hand, thanks to a vastly larger population and Shiite Islam, which it shares with nearly 60 percent of Iraqis.
Whatever separates them, Iran, Syria and Turkey share an aversion, according to diplomats, to the exiled Iraqi opposition's desire to establish a democratic government with Western-style institutions.
Iran long has harbored ambitions to set up a carbon copy Islamic republic in Baghdad. Turkish President Turgut Ozal, fearful that restored autonomy for Iraq's Kurdish minority could encourage demands by Turkey's own restive Kurds, has stated openly his preference for a military regime in Baghdad.