From: Reuters
Published May 25, 2008 10:50 AM

Iran hails "strategic" Syria ties: IRNA

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's defense minister hailed his country's "strategic ties" with Syria on Sunday, just days after Israel called on Damascus to distance itself from Tehran, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported.

Israel and Syria on Wednesday announced they had begun an open dialogue with the aim of a comprehensive peace, the first confirmation of negotiations between the long-time enemies in eight years.

But Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday said Syria needed to "distance itself completely" from "problematic ties" with Iran. Syria, she said, must also stop "supporting terror -- Hezbollah, Hamas," groups backed by Iran.

In Tehran on Sunday, Iranian Defence Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar described Syria as a strategic ally before talks with his Syrian counterpart Hassan Turkmani, IRNA said.

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"Iran-Syria ties are strategic ties founded on the national interests of the two countries and the world of Islam," he said.

Turkmani said, according to IRNA: "The robust Iran-Syria ties neutralize and weaken threats against the line of resistance."

Iranian state television later said in a scrolling headline that Turkmani "rejects any precondition" in talks with Israel.

Syria has demanded the return of the Golan Heights, a plateau overlooking Damascus on one side and the Sea of Galilee on the other, since the Jewish state captured it in the 1967 Middle East war.

The United States, in its initial public reaction Israeli-Syrian contacts, said it did not object to talks but repeated its criticism of Syria's "support for terrorism."

Many analysts say U.S. hostility to Damascus, and to its Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies, makes a Syrian-Israel deal unlikely before President George W. Bush leaves office in January.

The United States accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons. The Islamic Republic denies the charge and says its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity so that it can export more of its oil and gas.

(Reporting by Hashem Kalantari; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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