TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran warned that any strike on its nuclear facilities would draw a swift and crushing response and called Thursday for an expansion of its newly emerging strategic alliance with Syria to create a powerful united Islamic front that could confront Washington and Israel.
Such an expansion appears unlikely to go far, because many key Arab states including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are close Washington allies and have long been suspicious of Iran's Shiite Muslim clerical regime.
Still, the statements were another sign of the tense situation, coming a day after Syria and Iran declared they would form a united front against any threats, and a mysterious explosion in the region of a nuclear facility in southwestern Iran that initially was reported as a missile strike but later was attributed to construction work on a dam.
Iran's overtures to other Muslim countries in the Mideast reflect its concern about U.S. pressure to drop all its nuclear ambitions. With Syria under similarly strong American scrutiny -- in its case for its role in Lebanon and as an alleged sponsor of terrorism -- the two nations are trying to diminish Washington's efforts to isolate them.
The Bush administration has so far applied only diplomatic pressure, but has talked tough. President Bush has labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil" with North Korea and prewar Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Feb. 4 that a military strike against Iran was "not on the agenda at this point," but Bush has said he would not rule out any option.
Bush said Thursday the United States would support Israel "if her security is threatened."
Israel has warned that it may consider a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear installations along the lines of its 1981 bombing of an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad. The United States accuses Iran of having a secret program to make nuclear weapons; Iran insists its nuclear activities are for peaceful energy purposes.
"If I was the leader of Israel and I'd listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs that regarded the security of my country, I'd be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon as well," Bush said.
Fears the United States or Israel will attack Iran or Syria abound in the region, and Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani was quoted Thursday by state-run radio as saying retaliation would be harsh.
"When the Iranian nation sees our crushing response to the enemy, it should know one of our nuclear or non-nuclear facilities has been attacked," he said.
Iran's powerful former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaking after meeting Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari, said it was important to strengthen relations among Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other Islamic states in the region, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Rafsanjani said the United States and Israel were trying to create divisions among regional countries, which he said must "stay completely vigilant vis-a-vis the U.S. and Israeli plots." Rafsanjani is widely expected to run in June presidential elections.
Iran and Syria long have maintained warm relations. Syria was the only Arab country that remained allied to Iran during the 1980-88 war, and the two countries often coordinate on foreign policy, especially with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
"The Iranian-Syrian common front is not a new phenomenon. Iran and Syria have been strategic allies for the past 2 1/2 decades. What was declared Wednesday was insistence on more coordination and cooperation between the two in the face of growing U.S. hostility," said Mohammad Sadeq al-Hosseini, an Iranian expert on Arab affairs.
"The declaration may lead to closer high-level contacts so that the two can assist each other at crucial moments," he said, noting Iran was a major power in the Persian Gulf. "Closer cooperation between Tehran and Damascus can help delay U.S. plans against the two countries."
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who also met al-Otari, said Iran and Syria would safeguard their political relations by strengthening their economic ties, IRNA reported.
Pressure on Syria has grown since Monday's assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese accuse Syria or the pro-Syrian Lebanese government of involvement, which both deny. The United States recalled its ambassador to Damascus after the killing.
Bush said he did not know if Syria was involved in Hariri's killing, but that Damascus is "out of step with the progress being made in the greater Middle East." The ambassador's withdrawal, he noted, indicates "the relationship is not moving forward."
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said Lebanon was not the cause of the deteriorating relations.
"What is happening between us and the United States in essence has to do with Iraq and not Lebanon," Mouallem said on Al-Jazeera TV. "We want a normal relationship with Washington, but can the United States get rid of Israel's influence in order to build this relationship?"