Iran calls on Syrian President to consider protesters' demands

The Syrian government received an unexpected warning from its staunchest ally yesterday when Iran urged President Bashar al-Assad to heed the "legitimate demands" of civilians protesting against his family's 40-year rule.

In a noticeable shift in tone from Tehran, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the Middle East could be plunged into chaos if President Assad continued to ignore calls for reform.

Speaking to the semi-official ISNA news agency, Mr Salehi said: "Either in Yemen, Syria or any other country, people have some legitimate demands and governments should answer them as soon as possible."

Previous statements from the Iranians have focussed on accusations about alleged "foreign conspiracies".

Iran has for years used Syria's Baathist regime as a bulwark of its regional policy. Tehran sends weapons through Syria bound for its anti-Israel proxy – Hezbollah in south Lebanon.

If al-Assad's regime were to fall as a result of the anti-government protest movement, it could be calamitous for Iranian ambitions in the region.

The warning came after a month in which regional support for President Assad – who came to power in 2000 following three decades of dictatorship under his father – began to evaporate. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain withdrew their support in protest at the government's ruthless crackdown on protesters, while yesterday the Arab League dispatched its leader to Damascus in a bid to end the crisis.

Iran's statement yesterday was met with incredulity by some. Rime Allaf, a Syria expert from the Chatham House think-tank, tweeted: "How bad a regime do you have to be to have the #Iran regime ask you to listen to your people's demands?!"

Protesters inside Syria were dismissive. A man calling himself Mohammad, a member of an activist network called the Syrian Revolution Co-Ordinators' Union, told The Independent that it was "too little too late. They should have done this two months ago," he added.

Human rights groups have accused President Assad's security forces of killing more than 2,000 civilians since mass unrest against the government broke out in mid-March.

Yesterday's statement from the Iranian foreign minister came on the same weekend that the Syrian government successfully scuppered efforts by protesters to spark widespread protests in Damascus, which has so far escaped serious unrest. Activists used social networking sites to call for a "Million Man March" in the capital, but the attempt failed after grave warnings from Syria's interior ministry.

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