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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 13:17 GMT
Iran divided over US criticism
Anti-American mural in Tehran
America has been warned against attacking Iran
Jim Muir

Iran has reacted angrily to renewed accusations from American officials that it has given refuge to fugitives from the al-Qaeda movement fleeing from neighbouring Afghanistan.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that any American attack on Iran would be a huge and irreparable mistake.

President Khatami and other Iran cabinet members
Despite the smiles Iran's leaders are divided
And a former President, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said that any such adventurism in the region would cause an oil crisis.

But while President Bush's attack on Iran as part of an "axis of evil" has been bitterly condemned by Iranian reformists and conservatives alike, they are far from speaking with one voice.

What is perceived here as a series of veiled threats of eventual American action against Iran has been roundly condemned by all shades of Iranian political opinion, despite the deep cleavage between reformists and hardliners within the Islamic system.

Cracks showing

But those differences are now starting to surface again, despite the natural tendency to band together against the external threat.

The biggest of the reformist factions, known as the Participation Front, while condemning what it called America's drive for world domination, implicitly blamed the hardliners for providing pretexts for American intervention.

George Bush making his first State of the Union address
The US says Iran is soft on terrorism
It said the Americans were seizing on the behaviour of some of Iran's internal forces to portray the country as opposed to peace in the region and to international agreements.

It added that Washington was emboldened by the feeling that the bulk of Iranians were disillusioned with the system, for which it blamed the action of entrenched hardliners blocking reforms by the elected majority.

Al-Qaeda fugitives

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh was asked about statements, and even actions taken in the foreign policy field, by minority factions not in line with declared government policy as implied by Mr Bush's accusations.

He replied that it was up to Mr Bush to prove his accusations and that the only official positions were those taken by the Iranian Government itself.

There have been numerous unconfirmed reports on Iranian websites, giving details of alleged crossings into Iran by al-Qaeda fugitives protected by elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards - something the government strongly denies has happened.

In a similar vein, a prominent reformist deputy, Daood Soleimani, complained in parliament about what he called illegal power centres operating in a way that was providing pretexts for external intervention.

He called for those centres to be disbanded.

What is seen here as the American threat to Iran may, therefore, be partly a product of the internal Iranian power struggle, but it is also feeding back into it and heightening factional tensions.

EU ties unaffected

While the stepping up of American pressure on Iran has dealt a severe blow to any prospects for dialogue between the two estranged countries, Tehran's relations with Europe do not seem to have been affected at this stage - indeed they may even benefit, as Iran seeks to offset US hostility by moving closer to the Europeans.

European diplomats have been sceptical about most of the American claims and accusations against Tehran.

Two days of renewed "institutional dialogue" between Iran and the European Union troika got under way in Madrid on Monday, unruffled by the angry exchanges between Washington and Tehran.

See also:

04 Feb 02 | Americas
Iran warns US against attack
30 Jan 02 | Americas
Iran accuses Bush of war-mongering
31 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iran lashes out at Bush
15 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iran's slow struggle for reform
13 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iranian MPs stage walkout
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