Iran has stood up firmly against the suspension of Damascus from the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), saying the Syrian crisis can be resolved through a comprehensive internal dialogue and not from a policy of exclusion.

Addressing the media on Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said: “The suspension of its membership does not really resolve the issue and is not in line with the OIC charter.” He added: “We have to look for other ways, means and mechanisms for resolving conflicts and crises.”

Instead of declaring Syria suspended, Iran’s top diplomat said the OIC should pave “the way for a meeting between the opposition and the Syrian government so they can negotiate with the help of others to reach a Syrian-Syrian solution”.

Nevertheless, after the Foreign Ministers had met ahead of Tuesday’s OIC summit in Makkah, the grouping’s Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu appeared determined to marginalise Syria. Citing a rather awkward formulation, he observed that the “decision [for Syria’s suspension] has been agreed upon based on consensus with an absolute majority”.

He said the attending heads of state would confer their “final approval” for suspension during their final session of the conference later on Wednesday. The virulent rejection of the Syrian government led by President Bashar Al-Assad was also palpable in the Saudi delegation, whose senior diplomat Mohammed Ahmed Taieb was quoted as saying that “some delegates” were “demanding that the current President step down and [called for] preparing for a post-Assad transition period”. Along with Iran, Algeria — having recently witnessed “regime-change” in neighbouring Libya — also opposed Syria’s suspension.

But another neighbour in the Maghreb, Tunisia — the country which triggered the so-called “Arab Spring” — responded effusively to the prospect of sidelining Syria from the OIC. Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said the proposed suspension sent “a strong message to the Syrian regime on the importance of listening to the will of the people and their demands for freedom, justice and dignity”.

However, later on Tuesday, the Tunisians were given a tutorial on the region’s geopolitics by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a meeting with Tunisia’s President Monsef al-Marzouki, Mr. Ahmadinejad alerted his counterpart about the dangers posed to Muslim countries by NATO and its allies.

“Today the enemies of the regional nations and the NATO forces are ready to dominate all Islamic states,” he said. Mr. Ahmadinejad also spoke about the dangers of sectarian divisions that were being sown by “enemies” between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. While the delegates conferred, the shadow of the U.S. was never far away. The U.S. special envoy to the OIC, Rashad Hussain, is participating as an observer.

His attendance “demonstrates the United States’ commitment to working with our partners in the international community to support the aspirations of the Syrian people and bring additional pressure to bear on the Assad regime [of Syria],” said a State Department statement.

With Syria and the region’s sectarian divisions in sharp focus, traditional and unifying concerns of the member countries, such as the unresolved Palestinian issue, receded into the background at the conference. During his inaugural address, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia proposed the establishment of a centre for dialogue between Muslim confessions in Riyadh.

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