Assad defends Iran nuke drive

DAMASCUS: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defended Iran's nuclear drive, saying world powers locked in a standoff with Tehran should also voice concern over archfoe Israel's atomic arsenal.

"All nations have the right to possess nuclear energy," Assad said on Tuesday during a visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose country is Syria's closest regional ally.

"Those who suspect the presence of an Iranian military nuclear programme should also show that they are concerned about the Israeli military nuclear programme," he said.

His comments came on the eve of a visit to Damascus by Jeffrey Feltman, acting US secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, as President Barack Obama's administration pursues a policy of dialogue with Middle East states, even foes such as Iran.

Assad criticised the West over its claims that Iran's nuclear programme was a cover for ambitions to build atomic weapons, saying they were purely "political."

Israel is widely considered to be the Middle East's sole nuclear armed power, with a suspected arsenal of around 200 warheads, but it has long maintained a policy of neither confirming or denying it has the bomb and is not a signatory to any international nuclear accords.

Feltman, who will be accompanied by National Security Council Senior Director Daniel Shapiro, will visit Syria from Wednesday "to discuss issues of mutual and regional concern," the State Department said.

"This trip will further advance the US commitment to direct diplomacy with Syria and continue discussions from his previous trip," it added.

The United States accuses Syria and its non-Arab ally Iran of giving material support to militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah in their conflicts with Israel.

It also charges that Syria has turned a blind eye to Islamist militants entering Iraq through its border, while accusing Iran of actively supporting anti-US militants in Iraq via its common border further east.