Egypt urges support for rebels in Syria

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TEHRAN, Iran -- In a sweeping message that Iran is on the wrong side of Syria's civil war, Egypt's new president urged support Thursday for the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad and suggested that Tehran could risk a deepening confrontation with regional powers over the Damascus regime's fate.

The stinging comments by President Mohammed Morsi -- making his first visit to Iran by an Egyptian leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- was another blindside blow for Iran as host of an international gathering of so-called nonaligned nations.

His speech, delivered while seated next to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prompted Syria's delegation to walk out of the gathering.

Iran's leaders have claimed that the weeklong meeting, which wraps up today, displayed the futility of Western attempts to isolate the country over its nuclear program. But Iran also was forced to endure criticism from Mr. Morsi and another high-profile guest, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who cited concerns about Iran's human rights record and called its condemnations of Israel unacceptable.

It is highly unlikely that Iran would abandon Mr. Assad as long as there is a chance that he -- or at least his regime's core -- can hang on. Iran counts on Syria as a strategic Mediterranean outlet and a conduit to its anti-Israeli proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But the meeting highlighted how much Iran is out of step with the rest of the region over Syria. Other major rebel backers at the conference included Persian Gulf states led by Iran rival Saudi Arabia.

"The bloodshed in Syria is the responsibility of all of us and will not stop until there is real intervention to stop it. The Syrian crisis is bleeding our hearts," Mr. Morsi told delegates at the 120-nation Nonaligned Movement, a Cold War-era group of mostly developing nations that Tehran seeks to transform into a powerful bloc to challenge Western influence.

A major effort by Iran has been trying to showcase its nuclear narrative and cementing oil deals and trade with Asia and Africa to offset hits by Western sanctions.

But some critics question whether the group -- promoted as a third way for developing nations during decades of Washington-Moscow brinksmanship -- is too diverse and splintered by too many divisions, such as Syria, to find common policies.

"Morsi's comments violated the traditions of the summit and are considered interference in Syrian internal affairs," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who headed the Syrian delegation. He also accused the Egyptian leader of "instigating bloodshed in Syria," according to quotes reported by the state-owned Al-Ikhbariya TV. He didn't elaborate.

Mr. Morsi's address pushed Iran further into a corner. In effect, he demanded that Iran join the growing anti-Assad consensus or risk deeper estrangement from Egypt and other regional heavyweights, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell welcomed Mr. Morsi's comments on Syria as "very clear and very strong," particularly as they were made in Tehran "to some people who need to hear it there."

"We share Egypt's goal to see an end to the Assad regime, and an end to the bloodshed, and a transition to a democratic Syria that respects human rights," Mr. Ventrell said in Washington.

Mr. Morsi has proposed that Iran take part in a four-nation contact group that would include Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to mediate an end to the Syrian crisis. Mr. Ban also said Iran has a key role to play in finding a solution to end Syria's civil war, which activists say has claimed at least 20,000 lives. But Syrian rebels say they reject Iran's participation in any peace efforts.

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