Iranian tourists in Syria: a sign of political coziness
''These Iranians . . . ,'' said a Damascus hotelkeeper who caters to recently surging tourist traffic from Tehran. ''They are dirty people.'' This kind of popular resentment and prejudice - recalling age-old rifts between Persians and Arabs, Shiite and Sunni Muslims - is but one facet of a complex new partnership between muscularly secular Syria and Iran.
Many foreign diplomats here see potential danger in the long run for Syria in its flowering relationship with Iran's militant Shiite regime. Even some Syrian officials seem concerned - especially in view of the recent grass-roots growth of Shiite militancy next door in Lebanon.
In a reference to this, one official remarked earlier this month: ''The greatest danger (in the present Lebanese crisis) would be to allow anarchy in west Beirut.''
It was only two years ago that the government of President Hafez Assad - himself a member of Syria's minority Alawite religion, a strain of Shiite Islam - crushed a challenge from the fundamentalist Sunni ''Muslim Brotherhood'' by besieging the northwest Syrian city of Hama. Thousands of people, according to residents quoted by Western news reports, were killed.
Yet Syrian officials play down the ''religious'' element in the relationship with Iran - such as Iran's training of Lebanese Shiite militants in eastern Lebanon, an activity that has at least tacit Syrian OK. Syria, like Iran, has denied charges of involvement in recent suicide assaults on American, French, and Israeli targets in Lebanon.
Instead, officials here stress the clear political, economic, and strategic gains for Syria in the relationship with Iran. Of these, there are many.
They must be especially welcome to Damascus at a time when Syria's ties with Arab neighbors - notably Jordan, longtime rival Iraq, and some Gulf oil states - have been strained. Moves to return Egypt to a leadership role in the Arab world have also unsettled Syria.
Economically, Iran has in effect more than filled the gap in aid to Syria left by recent trims in support from some Arab oil states. Largely by providing oil at a discount, for easy credit, or free, the Iranians have during the past year or so surpassed Saudi Arabia - which has not visibly cut aid to Damascus - as Syria's largest source of foreign economic support.
Western diplomats peg the value of current Iranian oil transfers and other assistance at about $1.2 billion yearly. Saudi aid is estimated at slightly under $1 billion.
Militarily, the Iranians are tying down Syria's powerful historical rival - Iraq - in a costly war of attrition.
Politically, the relationship with Iran gives Syria's tough and pragmatic President Assad an added card to wave at his foes - whether they be Israel and the Americans, or Iraq and the Jordanians.
Mr. Assad can wave that card at allies as well - at the Soviets or at Saudi Arabia, which fears the effects of Iran-style Shiite revivalism.
Most important, Syria's part of the bargain has included the shutdown of a pipeline that used to ferry Iraqi crude to the Mediterranean - sending Iraq scurrying to compensate, still imperfectly, by increasing the flow through a pipeline across Turkey. The Iraqis are negotiating for construction of a new pipeline through Jordan and have agreed with Turkey on an additional line there to transport liquefied gas.
The Syrians also reportedly fly quantities of Soviet-made military goods to Iran - although Western sources say the quantities involved do not appear ''enormous.''
Yet possibly the most unwieldy aspect of the Syrian-Iranian partnership involves human beings. Under prudent Syrian watch, for instance, some 1,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards are said to be quartered in a hill town north of the Syrian capital. The Syrians, diplomats say, have seemed decidedly less enamored than Tehran with the idea of sending them east into Lebanon for combat.
Far more visible has been the influx of Iranian tourists to Damascus - at first, 1,000 of them a week, but since the start of February, twice that number. The visitors come under formal Syrian-Iranian agreement. They get about $200 worth of Syrian pounds on arrival at Damascus airport. Syria also pays the visitors' hotel bills. Iran credits all this to a Syrian oil bill that, by all accounts, has so far been allowed to mount with no serious Iranian pressure for repayment.
The platoons of Iranians - including many black-clad women and young children - have filled nearly a dozen hotels in the bustling heart of old Damascus. They have papered the lobbies of such hotels as the Semiramis, the Boustan, and the Kattan with large posters of Ayatollah Khomeini. There are also scattered photographs of ''martyrs'' from the Iran-Iraq war. Many of the visitors are said to be relatives of war victims.
The Iranians typically spend the first workday morning of their week's stay peddling goods they have brought - in most cases, a 10-kilogram haul of tasty pistachios. ''It's like an Iranian bazaar on Saturdays,'' says the desk manager of the Kattan, gesturing to the sidewalk outside. With the pistachio money, many of the Iranians buy consumer goods not available in Tehran.
The rest of the visit centers on religious sites such as the Ommayad mosque, monument to Damascus' dominance 13 centuries ago of the Arab world. But above all, the Iranians visit the Sit Zeynab mosque outside Damascus. Here is the resting place of the daughter of Ali and Fatima - patriarch and matriarch of Shiite Islam. The original split between Sunnis and Shiites came on the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Shiites believed his rightful successor was Ali, the prophet's son-in-law.
There have apparently been no incidents of violence involving the visiting Iranians - although Iran's envoy here was injured by a letter bomb in mid-February. Tehran blamed ''agents of the (Israeli) Zionist regime.'' But there do seem to have been instances of tension.
''When the Iranian tourists first started coming, we had a one-month controversy,'' a young desk clerk at the Kattan explains. ''They insisted all our female staff should wear chadors,'' the all-enveloping black robe devout Iranian women favor. The Kattan won, presumably with backing from Syrian authorities.
A number of old buildings near the Ommayad mosque are said to have been torn down to allow the Iranians their own space for worship. Local misgivings are reported to have forestalled further such moves. A sampling of Damascenes' comments on the Iranian tourists suggests no great love for the guests.
In the lobby of the Kattan only one picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini is visible.
''We just washed the walls,'' explains a hotel employee, as a chador-less female colleague smiles with evident approval. ''We told the Iranians they could still keep all their posters in the hallways upstairs, but that one was enough for down here.''
The young man pointed to a roll of posters behind the hotel desk. ''They keep bringing us new ones,'' he said, ''and we keep rolling them up and putting them aside.''
Outside, a pedestrian says he has nothing against the Iranians. They help business, after all. In eloquent testimony to this, a Syrian sidewalk vendor is busy reselling Iranian pistachios a few feet away.
The passer-by adds in an almost conspiratorial whisper: ''But you know, the Shiites really hate us Sunnis.''