DAMASCUS - The US-brokered Mideast peace conference yesterday raised tensions between allies Syria and Iran. Damascus defended its participation, while Iran said it was surprised by Syria's decision and warned that Arab countries risk falling for an Israeli plot.
The alliance of the two hard-line countries since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution survived Syrian-Israeli peace talks in the 1990s. But this time, Iran feels it is an implicit target of the Annapolis conference, believing it aims to stem Iranian influence in the Mideast.
Though there is widespread skepticism over the conference in the Arab world - including in Syria - Damascus made clear it has its own interests: better relations with Arab nations and the West and the possibility of a peace deal with Israel that would win the return of the Golan Heights, seized by the Jewish state in 1967.
Syria is attending the conference "because peace is its choice and because it has made strides in previous negotiations to achieve it," the state-run Syrian daily Tishrin said in an editorial yesterday. Syria "is ready to go to the ends of the earth to achieve this objective."
Washington has made clear that it hopes that bringing Syria to Annapolis can crack the alliance of its top rivals in the Mideast: Damascus and Tehran, which both support the Hamas and Hezbollah militant groups.
Syria, which hosts the top Hamas leadership, is not about to break away and it was not clear how deep tensions with Iran go. Damascus has expressed deep doubts about the conference and sent its deputy foreign minister, rather than the foreign minister, in a sign of its discontent.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who attended the conference in Annapolis, said that even though Tehran decided to send Syria a "warning shot" about its participation at the meeting, the alliance was not likely to suffer.
"One day at one conference is not going to make a difference in their relationship," said O'Hanlon.
"Syria attended because they wanted to keep all their options open," he added. "They made sure that if there was going to be a deal, their interests would not be forgotten . . . and it's not as if Syria really requires Iranian blessing for everything they do."
David Schenker, a senior Arab politics fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Syrians must have consulted with Tehran beforehand and would be representing common interests at the conference.
"These states have a strategic relationship of decades. They have an understanding," said Schenker. "The Iranians are not really surprised that Syria is attending . . . they are just warning the Syrians not to stray too far off of the reservation."
Tehran avoided direct criticism of Damascus, instead unleashing a volley of condemnations of the gathering.
"We were surprised by the Syrian position [to attend], and we said that we do not support the conference. We expressed our opinion clearly and openly," Hossein Shariatmadari, an adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.
He said the conference was "a plot against the Palestinians."
On Monday, Iranians protested outside the Jordanian Embassy in Tehran because Jordan's monarch urged President Bashar Assad of Syria to attend the Annapolis meeting. The protesters threw eggs at the embassy, and said in a statement that "those who recognize Israel commit treason against Muslims and Palestinians" - a reference to Jordan's peace agreement with Israel.
Gholam Hossein Elham, an Iranian government spokesman, said Iran was not in favor of seeing "Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia . . . stand next to the US and Israel."
Elham said Iran might host a conference of 10 Palestinian groups in "the coming days or next week." He did not identify the groups, but said "Palestinian groups have no representative in the Annapolis conference."