US: Iran helping Syria crack down on protests
WASHINGTON - The United States accused Iran Thursday of helping Syria in its efforts to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrators.
"We believe that there is credible information that Iran is assisting Syria... in quelling the protesters," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner, calling the development a "real concern."
"If Syria is turning to Iran for help, it can't be really serious about real reforms."
The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that Tehran was providing Syria with equipment to put down protests and monitor opposition groups, with more shipments expected, citing US officials.
"We believe that Iran is materially assisting the Syrian government in its efforts to suppress their own people," officials told the paper, adding that Tehran was sharing "lessons learned" from the 2009 post-election crackdown on demonstrations that sought the ouster of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iranian authorities are also providing Damascus technical assistance to monitor online communication from opposition groups to organize protests, US defense officials told the Journal.
But Iran's Finance Minister Shamseddin Hosseini, speaking on the sidelines of IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington, denied the accusations.
"We do not get involved in either of these countries," he said, comparing the recent wave of upheaval roiling across North Africa and the Middle East to the revolution that brought Islamists to power in Tehran 32 years ago.
The Syrian foreign ministry also rejected the American claim as "without foundation."
If the State Department has proofs, let it present them," a ministry official said in Damascus."
On Tuesday, the White House condemned escalating repression of demonstrations in Syria as "outrageous" and expressed concern about reports that the wounded were being denied medical care. It called on Assad's regime to respect "the universal rights of the Syrian people."
Widespread protests have shaken Syria in the last four weeks, with demonstrations reported in its second city Aleppo on Thursday following a weekend of confrontation between security forces and activists during which 30 civilians were killed, according to rights activists.
The unrest comes as the United States, after years of a diplomatic fallout with Damascus, plans to name a new ambassador to the country in hopes to renew ties with a regime whose close ties with Iran are of great concern to Washington.
Senior US Senator John Kerry meanwhile warned Assad to refrain from using force against protests planned for Friday and urged him to embrace a dialogue with the opposition.
Assad "should insist that his police and military refrain from using violence against peaceful demonstrators and instead he should seize the opportunity to open a process of real discussion to address the aspirations of the Syrian people," Kerry said in a statement.
The lawmaker, a former presidential candidate who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said "the world will be watching very closely" to see how Assad manages the next round of protests.