“Sanctions are not a solution (to the problem) between Iran and the West,” Muallem said. “We are trying to engage a constructive dialogue between the two parties in order to reach a peaceful solution.” Western governments suspect that Iran’s nuclear program — which earlier this month started higher grade uranium enrichment — is just cover for a drive to produce an atomic bomb. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is spearheading a global campaign to back sanctions against Iran if Tehran won’t halt the uranium enrichment and other aspects of its nuclear program. Iran, which has already been slapped with three sets of United Nations sanctions over its uranium enrichment, denies it has any hidden agenda and insists the atomic program is solely for peaceful purposes. Ahmadinejad’s meetings in Damascus come as tension was already rising between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The Iranian sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tell CBS News that Ahmadinejad is expected to meet in Damascus with the chiefs of two of the Middle East’s most widely known Islamic militant organizations, Hezbollah and Hamas. Ahmadinejad was to meet Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the exiled leader of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, and Khalid Mashaal, leader of the Palestinian group Hamas. Both men are now believed to live in Syria. Mouallem publicly blamed Israel last week for, “spreading an atmosphere of war,” and warned that Damascus would not hesitate to strike deep into Israeli territory if provoked. He said quite plainly that any conflict would be “all-out,” regardless of whether “it hits southern Lebanon or Syria.” His remarks were a response to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s own comments a few days earlier that the absence of a peace agreement with Syria could trigger a new Middle East war. Nasrallah recently stated that Israel cannot afford an unwinnable war and blithely threatened an eye for an eye with the Jewish state. Bubbling accusations that Israel’s Mossad spy agency was behind the assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mahbouh last month in Dubai have further escalated regional anger. Damascus has been Tehran’s major regional ally for the past three decades. Assad visited Tehran last August, and Ahmadinejad paid a visit to Syria last May. Syria also plays a key role for any brokering of peace between Israel and the Palestinians and controls a long border with Iraq that used to be the main point of entry for foreign Iraqi insurgents. Under Obama, the United States started talking to Syria’s government, in contrast to a policy of isolation under former President George W. Bush. The U.S. road to dealing with Iran’s policy on Iraq, its nuclear program and much else may now be passing through Damascus. Syria, in turn, argues that Washington should make every effort to force Israel to accept the Arab peace initiative. Damascus wants to regain the strategic Golan Heights, an enclave Israel captured during the 1967 Mideast War. It has offered peace in exchange. Last week, William Burns, America’s most senior Foreign Service officer, held talks in Damascus with the country’s head of state, and Robert Ford, the current deputy chief of mission in Iraq, received an ambassadorial nomination to represent U.S. interests in Syria. Such steps will formally reopen diplomatic relations between the two countries, which had been suspended in 2005. Last week, eight years after being lumped into the axis of evil and five years since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the U.S. State Department lifted an advisory that warned travelers about visiting Syria in hopes of warming relations.

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