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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
UK fosters Iran relations
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Iran's President Mohammed Khatami
The UK hopes to improve relations with Iran
By Jim Muir in Tehran

The UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has left Iran after a brief visit to consult Iranian leaders on the current crisis.

It was the first such visit by a UK foreign secretary for 22 years.

Mr Straw's trip to Iran was part of a wider tour of the Middle East, apparently aimed at preparing the way for coalition action against the Taleban.

What I've started today is a high level dialogue with the Iranians ... I want to see that continued

Jack Straw
Iran is hostile both to the Taleban and to the United States, and finds itself faced with both dangers and potential opportunities in the current crisis.

Mr Straw was quick to lay to rest speculation that he was trying to draw Iran in some way into a military coalition against its eastern neighbour.

Rather than coalition building, this was an attempt at consensus forming, creating a favourable regional political climate for action to come.

Reconstructing Afghanistan

Implicit in much of what Mr Straw said was the assumption that a decision has been taken to remove the Taleban.

Afghan refugees in Iran
Iran is home to about two million Afghan refugees

He was already looking ahead to a reconstruction period in which Iran and Afghanistan's other neighbours could help bring about a new stable government in Kabul.

That is something which Iran is well placed to do; with its long common border, more than two million Afghan refugees already on its soil and its strong ties with Afghan opposition groups.

It certainly would want to have a hand and a say in whatever replaces the Taleban, and that seems to be what is envisaged.

Iranian caution

The Iranian Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, certainly did not seem to be disputing the principle of removing the Taleban.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi
Mr Kharazzi stressed the need for a consensus

He stressed the importance of getting regional public opinion on side and of avoiding civilian casualties.

"I think the most important factor in any move against the culprits in this terrorist act is to get an international consensus," he said.

"Only through such a consensus, especially in terms of public opinion in this region, can such an operation be approved," he stated.

He warned: "Otherwise if a military operation leads to the death of innocent people it will naturally have a negative impact."

Despite his words of caution, the strong impression is that Iran would have little objection, and that could have an important influence on Muslim opinion.

Better relations

For Mr Straw, this was the start of a high-level dialogue he hopes will lead to a much deeper relationship with Iran.

"I'm devoting as much time as I can to ensure that the relationship is a much deeper one than it has been in the past," he said.

He added: "What I've started today is a high level dialogue with the Iranians, of a kind that we've not enjoyed for years. I want to see that continued."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon - reflecting Israeli anger with Mr Straw

However that is something that is hardly likely to be welcomed by his hosts on the next step in his Middle East tour, the Israelis.

They are still smarting over some of the UK Foreign Secretary's remarks.

But Mr Straw's diplomatic spat with the Israelis has helped deflect some right-wing Iranian criticism of his visit and Britain's role.

Reformist newspapers, which favour taking advantage of the current opportunities to move Iran's international position forward, pointed to the row as evidence of changing western policies.

See also:

24 Sep 01 | Middle East
UK in new Mid-East row
24 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Analysis: Straw's visit divides Iran
17 Sep 01 | Middle East
Iran condemns attacks on US
19 Sep 01 | Middle East
Middle East: Building the coalition
25 Sep 01 | UK Politics
UK seeks to heal Israel rift
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