Fri, Feb 18, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Iran and Syria sign defense pact to face mutual `threat'


Iran and Syria heightened tension across the Middle East and directly confronted the Bush administration on Wednesday by declaring they had formed a mutual self-defense pact to confront the "threats" now facing them.

The move was announced after a meeting in Tehran between the Iranian vice-president, Mohammed Reza Aref, and the Syrian prime minister, Naji al-Otari.

"At this sensitive point, the two countries require a united front due to numerous challenges," Otari said.

Regarded as rogue states by the White House, Iran is under pressure over its nuclear ambitions, while Syria came under renewed scrutiny over the assassination this week of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Yesterday's announcement came as the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, predicted that Tehran would have the knowledge to produce a nuclear weapon within six months.

Speaking in London, he accused Iran of preparing nuclear weapons that would be able to target "London, Paris and Madrid" by the end of the decade.

"We believe the Iranians will never abandon their dreams" of nuclear weapons, Shalom said. "It is not Israel's problem any more, it is the world's problem."

He said that "the question is not if Iran will hold a nuclear bomb in 2009, 2010, 2111, it is whether they have that knowledge. In six months, they will finish the tests to have the knowledge to produce weapons of mass destruction."

A British official cautioned that Israel has always put Iran's nuclear development "ahead of the estimates here and in the US."

"But no one knows for sure. We know the Iranians will not surprise us tomorrow, but whether it will be one year, or five or 10, we do not know."

The potential for further conflict in the region was highlighted yesterday by the reaction of the financial markets to speculative reports of an explosion near a nuclear facility in Iran.

Oil prices surged by more than a dollar. It later emerged that the explosion had been caused during construction of a dam.

Though Syrian diplomats insisted the alliance with Iran was not a move to provoke the US, there was no qualification when the declaration was made in Tehran.

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