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Syria's Assad rebuffs Washington by courting Iran

By Robin Pomeroy

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad assured his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday that their ties were solid -- a view unlikely to please Washington which is working to isolate the Islamic state.

"We have stood beside Iran in a brotherly way from the very beginning of the (Iranian Islamic) revolution," Assad said during a one-day visit to Tehran.

Ahmadinejad awarded Assad Iran's highest medal of honor in recognition of his support for Palestinians and Lebanon and his resistance to "global arrogance" -- a term which usually refers to the United States and its allies.

"We are two governments and nations which are brothers," Ahmadinejad said at the televised ceremony where the two presidents smiled and held their hands aloft for the cameras.

Assad said the medal was in appreciation of "the continuing and eternal stance of Syria to be on the side of Iran ... The two countries' close and continuing contacts are in the interest of the region."

The United States has tried to improve its relations with Damascus, something analysts say is in part aimed at distancing the country from Iran which Washington sees as a threat to Israel and other countries in the region.

Secular Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran are both supporters of Lebanon's militant Shi'ite group Hezbollah.

Assad, who was later due to meet Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he saw no hope for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians which he said were primarily intended to make U.S. President Barack Obama look good.

"The negotiations follow no goal but are merely intended to improve the Obama administration's image domestically," he said.

Washington has expressed concern at the influence both Syria and Iran have in Lebanon, particularly through their support to Hezbollah.

Ahmadinejad plans to visit Lebanon later this month, a trip bound to be seen as provocative by neighbor Israel which believes Iran is seeking nuclear weapons that could be used against the Jewish state.

"If it were not for Syria's resistance against the Zionist regime and its supporters, no country in our region would have remained safe from the Zionists' aggression and there would be no sign of Palestine resistance," Ahmadinejad said.

"Syria is a benefactor to Muslims, Arabs and even humanity."

(Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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