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Last Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006, 18:31 GMT
Iraq: What Iran and Syria want
Syria and Iran - two of the most vilified nations in the Bush administration's political atlas - could hold the key to saving American plans in their neighbour Iraq.

Washington may need the two regional allies to help stabilise Iraq in order to pull its own troops back from an increasingly unpopular commitment there.

But given its fraught relations with Tehran and Damascus, Washington is only likely to secure active Iranian and Syrian co-operation by paying a high price diplomatically from two countries known for their hard bargaining.


Iran wants a wholesale transformation of its relationship with the United States, which is one of the most antagonistic in the world.

At the moment attention of the US and its allies is on Iran's nuclear programme which they say is intended to produce a non-conventional military capability.

Iran wants to be allowed to continue its programme - including uranium enrichment - which it says is completely peaceful as well as its right under the international non-proliferation regime.

That means an end to the threat of UN sanctions - which Tehran has been able to avoid so far - and an end to US and Israeli threats of military action to destroy its nuclear facilities.

In the past, Tehran has had its fingers burnt by trying to open a dialogue with this most hawkish of US administrations.

In May 2003, for example, it offered to open up its nuclear programme, rein in Hezbollah and co-operate against al-Qaeda, but was reportedly rebuffed as the insistence of former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Since then, a right-wing Iranian president has been elected, although overall executive power lies with the religious revolutionary leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei.

From its past experience, Iran is likely to reject any overtures from the US or its allies for talks on limited issues.

It wants to be absolved completely from Washington's designation of it as part of the "axis of evil" - a state to be shunned by Western allies.

It is not clear how much of a greater role it wants to be given in Iraq.

It already enjoys a close relationship with the government dominated by religious Shia Muslims, but a greater role may cause greater friction with the Sunni Muslim community.


The regime in Damascus finds itself on much shakier ground than its Iranian ally at the moment.

It is under great pressure over the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

So far a UN-backed tribunal has implicated Syria in the bombing that killed Mr Hariri in February 2005, but Damascus denies involvement.

It may hope that its current diplomatic isolation over Lebanon may be relieved if if can play a more positive role in Iraq.

Damascus is condemned as a "state sponsor of terrorism" by Washington because it hosts Palestinian militant groups sworn to Israel's destruction.

It may see this as an opportunity to change that designation - perhaps in a wider effort to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict, including a chance to reopen its own negotiations with Israel on the return of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

Finally, Damascus needs commercial co-operation and support with the West as its political isolation is made worse by a chronic weakness in the country's economy.

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