Iran denies sending Hezbollah to Syria

DAVOS (AFP) - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Friday denied his country had sent Hezbollah militants to fight in Syria, saying the Tehran-backed Shiite extremist group was making its own decisions.

And he told a gathering at the World Economic Forum that he believed the Syrian conflict could be resolved within the next year, saying he hoped talks in Geneva would bear fruit.

The usually smiling Iranian diplomat, who has been seen as the new face of the Islamic republic since coming to office in August, was unusually combative in a tense panel session held in the Swiss mountain town of Davos.

Under constant questioning about Iran's role in shoring up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr Zarif said it was "preposterous" to suggest that Tehran was supporting extremist groups fighting in Syria.

"We are not sending people, Hezbollah has made its own decision," Mr Zarif told the audience, adding that Iran had also suffered at the hands of Sunni Al-Qaeda extremists.

But he tacitly acknowledged Iran's support for Mr Assad, when asked if the long-time leader would have survived against a determined uprising without Tehran's help.

"Of course he would, nobody would survive unless they have domestic legitimacy," Mr Zarif insisted.

Asked if he would call for Lebanese militia group Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, he added: "What I can ask is for all foreign elements to leave Syria and for the Syrian people to decide their own future.

"To stop funneling funds and money and arms into Syria and to allow the Syrian people to decide their destiny... hopefully in Geneva, although we were not invited. But we are hoping that Geneva can produce results, because we are in the region, we will be affected by any disaster coming out of the region." Iran was finally not invited to join the opening of a peace conference in Switzerland, because it has failed to sign up to a 2012 accord which sets out that Mr Assad must give way to a transitional government to end the fighting.

The US and its allies accuse Iran of sending cash, arms and advisors to prop up Mr Assad's regime. But Mr Zarif said it would be possible to end the war within the next 12 months. "It is possible, it's for us to decide and for us to implement that decision... and Iran is committed to that."