| ABU DHABI
ABU DHABI The Syrian people should be left to choose their leader in elections due in 2014 and until then countries should avoid aggravating the bloodshed by interfering on the ground, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Monday.
Iran has supported President Bashar al-Assad throughout the 16-month uprising in Syria, a rare ally amidst widespread condemnation of a crackdown on dissent that has left thousands dead.
Syria, led by members of a sect related to Shi'ite Islam, accuses the Sunni-led Gulf monarchies of supporting unrest among its Sunni majority as a way to check rising Shi'ite influence in the region, most notably that of Shi'ite Iran.
Far from urging Assad to step down, as the West and many Middle Eastern countries have done, Salehi said he should stay at least until elections in 2014.
"No ruler is an eternal ruler, so in the case of Mr Bashar al-Assad, by 2014 there are presidential elections in which we will have to let the events take their normal course," Salehi said in an interview with Reuters in Abu Dhabi.
United Nations peace envoy Kofi Annan has said he would like to see Iran take part in international efforts to end the Syria crisis, but that has been rejected by Washington and its allies.
Backing Assad's assertion that he is battling foreign-armed "terrorists", Salehi said a "good portion" of the rebels were from extremist militant groups.
"Now there are a lot of weapons being smuggled into Syria. Many people from different countries are pouring into Syria and raising arms against the government. This aggravates the situation," Salehi said.
"My message to all countries that can play a role in this regard is to be very prudent and wise not to worsen the situation," said the softly spoken Iraqi-born foreign minister.
Speaking as Annan headed to Tehran after a meeting with Assad in Damascus on Monday, Salehi said Iran still supported the envoy's six-point peace plan and said Annan should be given "enough chance to be able to push forward" his proposal.
"We also support this idea whereby the government and the opposition sit down together to find a way out," he said.
HORMUZ CLOSURE, NUCLEAR TALKS
Salehi downplayed threats by Iranian officials in recent months to block the Strait of Hormuz, the slender oil shipping channel out of the Gulf, in retaliation for a European Union ban on its oil exports.
"Probably those who have suggested this idea have in mind that if Iran is denied access to the Persian Gulf for whatever reason ... then Iran will probably react appropriately," he said.
"But I don't think such a time will ever come," he added.
Tensions between the West and Iran have increased since high-level nuclear talks foundered in Moscow in June, with Tehran saying it had successfully tested medium-range missiles capable of hitting Israel as a response to threats of attack.
Salehi said Iran was fully committed to resolving the nuclear issue but that world powers had deviated from understandings made at the first of three rounds of negotiations this year.
"For some reason whenever there is light at the end of the tunnel, somebody tries to cover up even that dim light," he said.
"The continuation of this (deadlock) ... is not in the interest of the international community, not in the interests of my country and not in the interest of the region."
In Moscow last month, the P5+1 group of nations - Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States - repeated demands that Iran stop enriching uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, ship its stocks of the fuel out of the country and close down its Fordow enrichment facility.
Iran refused the requests unless Western governments eased punitive economic sanctions and acknowledge its right to enrich uranium under international law. Tehran has always denied it is developing nuclear weapons.
"Iran is ready to talk about the 20 percent issue but of course it should be reciprocated properly," said Salehi.
He said that if Iran's needs for fuel for several planned reactors producing medical isotopes were fully met, then it would be ready to discuss halting high-grade enrichment.
He denied accusations that Iran's Parchin military site had been cleansed of atomic material caused by nuclear explosives tests - covering up illicit experiments aimed at developing nuclear bombs.
Nuclear inspectors would be able to confirm this when the time came to visit that site again, he said, but did not specify when Iran would finally allow that to happen.
Salehi, who earned his doctorate in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a former Iranian envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said granting the U.N. nuclear watchdog access to Parchin depended on when Iran managed to conclude a broader agreement with the IAEA.
The Parchin complex is at the centre of Western suspicions that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability. Despite repeated requests, Iranian officials have so far refused further access to the site, saying they were "not convinced" by the reasons for the request.
After a visit to Tehran in May, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said he was close to an agreement with Iran on inspection visits to nuclear facilities.
(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)