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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 12:43 GMT
West watches Iran
Relations between Iran and the UK were strained by the fatwa on Salman Rushdie
The fatwa on Salman Rushdie strained relations
By regional analyst Pam O'Toole

Western governments have been watching Iran's parliamentary elections closely, knowing the results could have far reaching implications for Tehran's future relations with the West.

Publicly they have remained neutral, aware that if they were seen to be supporting reformist President Khatami, it could give Iran's conservatives an opportunity to attack his followers as pawns of the West.
Rocky relations
1979: Revolution overthrows US-backed Shah of Iran. US severs relations after radicals seize its embassy in Tehran
1989: Ayatollah Khomeini declares fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie.
1980-88: Iran alleges Western backing for Baghdad during Iran-Iraq war. US shoots down an Iranian plane, killing 290 people
April 1997: EU ambassadors withdraw from Tehran after Iran is implicated in the killing of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin
1998: President Khatami calls for new relationship with US. Tehran and London improve ties
1999: President Khatami becomes first Iranian president in 20 years to visit West
But the West is hopeful that the reformists' victory will help the thaw in relations with Iran to continue, even if slowly.

That thaw was a long time coming. For almost two decades after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran and the West viewed each other with suspicion, or downright hostility.

Iran was still bitter over the involvement of US and UK intelligence services in the overthrow of an elected Iranian prime minister in the 1950s.

In 1979, Iranian student revolutionaries took revenge, seizing the US Embassy in Tehran and taking 52 people hostage.

Tehran dubbed the United States "the Great Satan" and accused it of seeking "global hegemony". The US and Europe countered with allegations that Iran was sponsoring state terrorism, developing weapons of mass destruction and seeking to wreck the Middle East peace process.

The 1989 death edict against the British author Salman Rushdie - imposed by the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini - continued to blight relations with Europe for almost a decade.

Reformist leader

The change began after President Mohammad Khatami's landslide election victory in 1997. His sweeping reform programme, aimed at promoting democracy, establishing the rule of law and opening up Iran to the outside world, helped persuade Europe that Iran was finally changing.
President Khatami has called for a dialogue with the American people
President Khatami wants to improve relations with the US
The European Union, conscious of Iran's growing strategic importance in the region and Islamic world, re-launched its political dialogue with Tehran.

Meanwhile, European oil companies, aware of the new economic opportunities opening up, flouted US sanctions in a stampede to sign billion-dollar oil deals in Iran. The UK and Iran finally improved relations in 1998 after reaching an accommodation on the Salman Rushdie affair.

A year later, President Khatami became the first Iranian president in more than 20 years to visit western Europe.

Easing relations

The EU still has concerns about Iran's human rights situation and alleged links between some Iranian groups and Islamic extremists abroad. But it also believes, as one London newspaper put it, that President Khatami is "a man it could do business with".
Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Revolution, had a tense relationship with the west
Ayatollah Khomeini: A tense relationship with the West
However, the diplomatic thaw between Tehran and Washington has been much more gradual.

President Khatami took a brave step forward in a 1998 TV interview, calling for a "dialogue with the American people". Cultural exchanges followed, along with a slight relaxation of stringent American sanctions against Tehran.

But relations have remained uneasy, partly because of strong conservative lobbies within both countries opposed to any improvement.

Over the past year, as the power struggle in Iran has intensified, it is the United States that has made most of the running, with the US Department calling openly for "a government to government dialogue".

Anti-US feeling

Even if President Khatami had wished to respond to such overtures, it would have been politically risky for him to do so, given the conservative majority in parliament and the strength of anti-American feeling which still exists in some quarters.
The Iranian government has distanced itself from the fatwa on Salman Rushdie
Iran has distanced itself from the fatwa on Mr Rushdie
He and his ministers have so far restricted themselves to demands that the US take certain steps before relations can improve, including the removal of sanctions.

With American oil companies vociferously demanding access to the Iranian market, it is increasingly likely that the current raft of US sanctions could be dropped when they have run their course.

Analysts believe that the reformists' success in the polls will make it easier for US-Iranian relations to finally move forward.

Some even suggest President Clinton might want to push for a major breakthrough by the end of this year to notch up a last-minute foreign policy success for his outgoing administration.

See also:

01 Feb 00 | Middle East
31 Jan 00 | Middle East
12 Jan 00 | UK Politics
29 Jan 00 | Middle East
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