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Saturday, 12 October, 2002, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Britain woos the Iranians
President Mohammad Khatami and Jack Straw
Mr Straw was welcomed by President Khatami

It was the mousetraps on the sitting room floor which surprised me, I hadn't really expected them there.

Huge, deadly mousetraps, each with a square loop of thick copper wire straining at the springs and tiny fragments of cheese, well beyond mature as the bait.

The traps were set on the floor , around the edges of a sitting room in the British Ambassador's residence in Teheran.

The image was perfect mousetraps are neither quite offensive nor defensive weapons, are you out to get the mouse or is he out to get you?

Iran can seem like that: a county both paranoid and schizophrenic.

Let's deal with the schizophrenia first. Iran is a country with two paramount enemies but it's also a country with two governments.

Anti US rally in Tehran
Iranian protesters chant anti US slogans during a demonstration in Tehran

The enemies, of course, are the United States and Iraq. The two governments are the revolutionary ultra-conservative clerical one of the mullahs and the modernising civilian one led by President Khatami.

The endless battle between these two Irans has been further confused by the sudden necessity now to make a choice between the old enemies.

On this brief visit to Tehran I got precious little time to talk to Iranians, but plenty of opportunity to listen to them.

At a news conference, when Iran's Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi stood beside Jack Straw under a startlingly bright chandelier, the questions were almost more illuminating than the answers.

Many of the Iranian reporters wanted to know why Mr Straw had come as a messenger of the United States.

He had not, he assured them.

Anger at the US

One woman wanted to know why Britain was getting involved in another war over oil, this is not about some sordid pursuit of oil, he replied.

And from Iran's foreign minister there were some new shadings to the rhetoric.

There is deep anger against the United States for lumping Iran with Iraq in that notorious "axis of evil" which even President George W Bush seems now to recognise was a ghastly error of judgement.

But Kamal Kharrazi tried to lead his Iranian audience away from the caricature of Britain as "little Satan" to America's "Great Satan".

Mr Kharrazi praised Britain's latest commitment to try to bring back from the dead a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

And there were hints too that Iran would not actively frustrate an American-led war on Iraq, if that is what it comes to.

After all, Iran has more direct reasons to hate and despise Saddam Hussein than any of Iraq's other neighbours.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians died in the eight years after Saddam Hussein invaded back in 1980. America, Britain and the West started out on the wrong side in that war, backing and arming Saddam against Iran.

Jack Straw very deliberately acknowledged that terrible mistake for his Iranian audience.

What ifs?

And, over dinner, Dr Kharrazi asked the British visitors to bear in mind that an Iranian still dies almost every day now as a result of the gas attacks Saddam used against them.

Jack Straw and President Khatami actually got to talking in some detail about the "what ifs" of a war against Saddam, the Iranians apparently ready to embrace that likelihood, even if they oppose it strongly in public.

There was even talk of the day after Saddam Hussein is gone, with Iran insisting - and Britain accepting - that it will not try to grab land or power.

Which brings us to paranoia.

Iran's great fear is of encirclement by its other great enemy, the United States.

England captain David Beckham
Beckham recognised by majority of young Iranians

With American bases just to the east in Afghanistan, add an American army in Iraq too, and George Bush could move to phase three of his war on terrorism and snuff out the regime in Iran next.

There is no doubt the hardliners in Iran who orchestrate the hatred of Israel and the United States are frightened - not least of the appetites of young Iranians, growing in number, and less and less tolerant of the culture of isolation and denunciation.

Two little opinion polls tell most of the story. One, just published, but then immediately suppressed, shows a majority of the young wanting closer ties with America.

The second opinion survey simply asked youngsters to name people from photographs. Most recognised was still Ayatollah Khomeini - good news for conservatives - President Khatami came second - not bad for reformers - but, in third place, with pin up posters on sale in Tehran these days, English football captain, David Beckham.

Maybe, just maybe, Iran is getting ready to make more friends in the world outside, and fewer enemies.

Key stories





See also:

08 Aug 01 | Middle East
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