The United States and its allies are exploiting popular protests in Syria to try to break an alliance between Damascus and Tehran against Israel, a senior Iranian official said on Wednesday.
Iran is watching the unrest in neighboring Syria with alarm and rejects western allegations it is helping its closest ally in the Middle East to crush a three-month popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Ramin Mehmanparast, a special advisor to Iran’s Foreign Minister, said the alliance between Iran and Syria constituted a threat not only to Israel, but also to the West’s interests in the Middle East.
“The West could not stop regional uprisings … America lost a close ally in the region with the overthrow of (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak,” Mehmanparast said.
“As interests of America and its allies are endangered in the region … they are trying to shift the crisis by creating problems for independent countries (like Iran and Syria).”
Mehmanparast said the West planned to replace Assad with a leader less hostile to itself and Israel.
“They are trying to harm Syria as it is playing a prime role in opposing Israel in the region,” said Mehmanparast, who is also Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Iran, which has crushed its own opposition protests at home, supported popular uprisings that toppled U.S.-backed leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, praising the movements as an “Islamic awakening” inspired by its 1979 Islamic revolution.
Tehran sees Syria’s unrest as a “Zionist plot” against its close ally Damascus. The Islamic state is accused of equipping Syria to block the internet, drawing on its own extensive experience of crushing anti-government protests that followed the country’s disputed 2009 presidential vote.
Syria has denied receiving any support from Iran to put down the popular unrest. Iran also denies the accusation.
DISCORD AMONG MUSLIMS
“A part of the people in Syria, which are not the majority, have some demands. Their demands should be expressed in a peaceful way as well,” he said.
Rights groups say security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad have killed over 1,300 civilians since March when the uprising for political freedom erupted in Syria, adding that scores of troops and police were also killed for refusing to fire on civilians.
Syrian authorities say more than 250 soldiers and police died in clashes with “armed terrorist groups,” whom they also blame for most civilian deaths.
“The number of security forces killed in Syria shows (not all) protestors are ordinary people,” Mehmanparast said, accusing the U.S. and Israel of “provoking terrorist groups in Syria.”
Mehmanparast warned the West over repercussions that might go beyond Syria if destabilized.
Syria, which borders Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, has regional influence because of its alliance with Iran and its continued role in Lebanon, despite ending a 29-year military presence there in 2005.
Analysts say Iran, that sees itself as a bastion of Shi’ite Islam, is concerned about wider Sunni influence in the region.
“Iranians are trying to gain new allies to prevent expansion of Sunni’s power in the region,” said political analyst Ali Fazeli.
Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia and the United States, which bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, both fear Iran’s rising influence in the region since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, analysts say.
Mehmanparast said Iran had no intention to adopt “hostile foreign policy” toward any regional country.
“Boosting regional ties has always been a priority for Iran … any country … that blocks such convergence is moving in line with the Zionist regime’s interests,” Mehmanparast said, accusing Washington of creating discord among Muslims.
In March, tension increased between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both major oil exporters, when about 1,000 Saudi soldiers entered Bahrain as part of an effort by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to help the island’s Sunni Muslim elite cope with protests by members of its Shi’ite majority.