STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, let's look at the Islamic Republic of Iran's strange alliance with the secular government of Syria. President Bush considers the two countries troublemakers in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
One question now is whether Washington could drive a wedge between the two by talking with Syria. Syria has signaled the willingness to talk, but at the same time is building new economic ties with Iran.
NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
DEBORAH AMOS: In his office in Central Damascus, Syria's deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Al-Dardari, is confident about his country's standing in the turbulent Middle East.
Mr. ABDULLAH AL-DARDARI (Deputy Prime Minister, Syria): I don't want to say that it's a sense of I told you so, but people are realizing in Western capital that if you want to be influential in the Middle East, you have come through Damascus.
AMOS: Four American senators have made the trip recently, even more top European officials and diplomats, which is good news says Dardari.
Mr. AL-DARDARI: The former policy of political isolation of Syria has ended. Foreign ministers are coming everyday practically to Syria.
AMOS: But there are other visitors to Damascus, Iranian businessman and government official with deep pockets. Funding high priced projects, says the deputy prime minister, transforming a political alliance into an economic one.
Mr. AL-DARDARI: That's political and economics. Can you separate the two?
AMOS: This car factory - a $60-million facility now under construction - is just one example of growing economic ties. By next year, Syrian officials say 10,000 Iranian-designed cars will roll off the assembly line. The biggest project is a $1.5 billion oil refinery. There's also a 50,000-unit housing project and a new public transportation system.
Syrian businessmen Halid Majoud(ph) arranged the private Iranian capital to replace Syria's outdated minibus fleet.
Mr. HALID MAJOUD (Syrian Businessman): All the buses will be climate controlled. We will have the best quality for public transportation.
AMOS: Majoud's own factory makes vinyl windows, a multimillion-dollar business. He's a Syrian American with reservations about aligning so closely to Iran. But he says it is a necessity. In the past, Syrian businessmen look to the West, but European investments slowed after the United Nations imposed economic sanctions of Syria.
Mr. MAJOUD: The continuous pressure of the non-just and not fair politics pushed the Syrian people to push the Syrian government to look east.
AMOS: Increasing dependence on Iran is a sensitive move. There is a danger of fueling the same sectarian tensions that are tearing Iraq apart and threatening neighboring Lebanon. Syria's population is 80 percent Sunni Muslim. But the ruling elite - the president and his family - are from a minority Shiite Muslim sect called Alawites.
Some Syrians worry about what else comes with financial help from Shiite Iran. They see the half million Iranian tourists who comes each year to pray at historic Shiite shrines. They know Iran has recently expanded and updated the shrines, built new Shiite mosques across the country and opened schools in the capital, and they don't like it.
Iran's religious building projects have alarmed Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power and Iran's rival in the region. Saudi's top religious authorities sent a stern warning to Sunni religious leaders in Syria, says Mohammed Habash(ph), a member of parliament.
Mr. MOHAMMED HABASH (Member of Syrian Parliament): Saudian Islamic scholars sent a declaration to Syria. Please be careful about Shia uprising in Syria. They send this declaration.
AMOS: Habash dismissed their concerns.
Mr. HABASH: I said don't worry about us. We are here, Sunni and Shia, centuries ago. So they said but Shia in Syria building new shrines. We don't believe this is wrong.
AMOS: But other Syrians say it is a threat to the country's religious identity. Down a narrow side street is the office of human rights lawyer Haison Mallah(ph). A political activist who speaks out in a country where that can be dangerous. Mallah and other Sunnis believe Iranians are trying to spread Shiism in Syria.
Mr. HAISON MALLAH (Human Rights Lawyer, Political Activist): They are paying money for changing the people from Sunni to Shiite.
AMOS: The Syrians?
Mr. MALLAH: The Syrians. Yes, yes, Syria.
AMOS: He believes some conversions have already happened.
Mr. MALLAH: I'm not sure how many but there is some. There is some small villages change to Shiite. I think this wrong step.
AMOS: Iran's economic embrace has brought a windfall of new investments, more jobs to a country with dangerously high unemployment among the young. But he new economic alliance brings the risk of social unrest in an increasingly sectarian, unstable Middle East.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.
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