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Tuesday, 11 January, 2000, 12:45 GMT
Analysis: Britain courts pariah nations

Kharrazi's visit in the media spotlight

By world affairs correspondent Nick Childs

The visit to London by Iranian Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, is the first such trip for more than 20 years. But there have been protests against the visit.

And Britain's resumed ties with another Middle East state, Libya, have also been under the spotlight, after the UK protested to Tripoli over an apparent Libyan attempt to smuggle missile parts through London.

There has certainly been a distinct shift in British foreign policy in the last couple of years, towards engagement with Middle East states previously regarded in Britain at least as pariahs.

In part, this has been the result of very specific and sometimes tortuous diplomacy - over the Salman Rushdie case with Iran, and in Libya's case over Lockerbie and the killing of woman police officer Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.

Controversial approach

The protests which have shadowed Dr Kharrazi on his visit have underlined that this has been a controversial approach.

Kharrazi meets Blair: A controversial handshake

It has also emerged that London first had suspicions that Libya might be trying to smuggle missile parts via Britain in April last year, before the decision to resume diplomatic relations with Tripoli.

The equipment in question was impounded in July, just before the two countries resumed ties, and finally officially seized after inspection by defence experts in November.

The British ambassador in Libya has now delivered what the Foreign Office described as a firm protest over the affair.

But critics argue that the British Government has accepted too many compromises in its desire to resume contacts, and that its strategy does not sit well with Robin Cook's declared aim of pursuing a foreign policy with an ethical dimension.

Benefits of a dialogue

British officials say continuing difficulties and misgivings must be set against the benefits of reopening a dialogue, and trying to encourage beneficial change.

In the case of Iran, Britain says it continues to raise concerns about human rights questions, Tehran's attitude to the Middle East peace process, and the question of the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

London insists there is a process of change under way in Iran, and that Dr Kharrazi is one of the moderates who needs to be encouraged and supported. In that sense, the approach does seem to have changed as the wider diplomatic climate has changed.

In this, as in many areas, Britain finds itself caught in the middle between many of its European partners, who have been pressing ahead faster in rebuilding ties, and the United States, which remains much more cautious.

The timing of the Libyan missile parts incident may be significant. Foreign Office officials say it shows that a deliberate and steady approach is correct, and that suggestions of an invitation for the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, to visit the European commission in Brussels are "premature".

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11 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Protesters dog Iranian minister
24 Sep 98 |  World
Decade of soured relations ends
21 Sep 99 |  UK Politics
Cook to visit Iran
18 Jul 99 |  Middle East
British envoy takes up Iran posting
09 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Khatami allies barred from election

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