TEHRAN, Iran — In a sweeping message that Iran is on the wrong side of Syria’s civil war, Egypt’s new president urged the world Thursday to support the rebels seeking to topple Bashar Assad and suggested that Tehran could risk a deepening confrontation with regional powers over the fate of the regime in Damascus.
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 Friday, displayed the futility of Western attempts to isolate the country over its nuclear program.
But Iran also was forced to endure criticism from 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’s highly unlikely that Iran would abandon Assad as long as there is a chance for him — or at least the core of his regime — to hang on. Iran counts on Syria as a strategic outlet to the Mediterranean 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 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,” 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 the hits from Western sanctions.
But some critics question whether the group — promoted as a third way for developing nations during the decades of Washington-Moscow brinksmanship — is too diverse and splintered by too many divisions, such as Syria, to find any 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 Morsi of “instigating bloodshed in Syria,” according to quotes reported by the state-owned Al-Ikhbariya TV. He didn’t elaborate.
Morsi’s address pushed Iran further into a corner. In effect, he demanded Iran join the growing anti-Assad consensus or risk deeper estrangement from Egypt and other regional heavyweights such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell welcomed 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,” Ventrell told a news conference in Washington.
Ahram Online, a state-owned news website in Egypt, said Morsi “all but equated the Assad regime with the Israeli occupation of Palestine when he referred to the struggle for freedom by the Palestinian and Syrian peoples.”
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. 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.
Morsi reiterated his position against any kind of foreign military intervention in Syria, but is working closely with countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia that have openly backed the rebel forces.
Morsi held talks on Syria with Ahmadinejad in a closed-door meeting that lasted 40 minutes in the same conference center where the summit was taking place, diplomats said. He told Ahmadinejad that Tehran must end its support for Assad in order prevent any chance of Western intervention, according to the diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
At the United Nations, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was expected to urge the Security Council later Thursday to set up a zone in Syria to protect thousands fleeing the civil war. But the initiative is almost certain to meet resistance from Council members such as Russia, which has supported the Assad dynasty for decades.
“We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer (of power) to a democratic system,” Morsi said.