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Monday, 10 July, 2000, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
Analysis: Khatami's high-risk venture
Khatami arrives in Germany
Khatami is eager to improve Iran's external relations
By Jim Muir in Tehran

Supporters of Iran's reformist President Muhammad Khatami are hoping that his three-day trip to Germany will help improve Iran's relations, and trade, with Europe.

They feel this might increase the pressure on Washington to revise its own policies towards the Islamic Republic.

The Germany visit is part of President Khatami's drive to foster détente and improve Iran's external relations and image after years of isolation in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But it is a high-risk venture for the cautious Iranian president.

Iranian dissidents vowed to disrupt Khatami's trip

Hard-liners at home have attacked Germany for its preoccupation with human rights, terrorism and other issues, including alleged discrimination against Muslims resident in Germany.

And in Germany itself, Iranian dissidents living in exile have vowed to do all they can to disrupt Mr Khatami's visit.

The trip has also been condemned by nearly a quarter of the deputies in the German Bundestag.

Any embarrassing or humiliating incidents during the president's visit could lay him open to criticism from hard-liners in Tehran.

Important visit

His is the first trip to Germany by an Iranian head of state since a visit by the Shah in 1967, which was marred by student violence when he went to West Berlin.

For Mr Khatami the road to Berlin has been a long and rocky one.

Relations between the two countries suffered a severe setback in 1997, when a German court ruled that senior Iranian officials were accomplices in the murder of Iranian Kurdish dissident exiles at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin five years earlier.

Later in 1997, a German businessman, Helmut Hofer, was arrested and initially sentenced to death for an alleged affair with an Iranian Muslim woman.

Better ties with Germany will increase awareness in the United States that it has no choice but to expand relations with Iran

Iranian Minister Kamal Kharrazi

Hofer's release in January this year paved the way for Mr Khatami's long-heralded visit.

But in April, there were fresh complications.

A group of liberal Iranian intellectuals and writers who attended a conference in Berlin on political prospects in Iran were arrested on their return to Tehran, on the orders of the conservative-dominated judiciary.

The move was seen by reformists as part of a wider crackdown on some of their most leading figures, which has seen nearly 20 newspapers closed down, and many journalists and other prominent liberals arrested.

On the eve of Mr Khatami's departure for Berlin, a reformist newspaper ran a cartoon suggesting he should have his bail money ready for when he returns.

Trade with Germany

Mr Khatami and his aides are hoping to put the past behind them and open a new chapter in relations.

His trip to Germany was long overdue. It is his third to a European country, after Italy and France.

Yet despite the political setbacks, Germany remains Tehran's biggest trading partner - but the value of trade in both directions has been diminishing.

Iran's imports from Germany have dropped from $2.5bn to $1.5bn over the past seven years.

Exports, standing at around $600m, are also down.

Mr Khatami and his delegation will be hoping that their visit will help reverse that trend.

In addition to holding political talks with Chancellor Schroeder and other officials, the Iranian visitors were also conferring with top German industrialists and business leaders.

There is also a cultural aspect to the visit, with the Iranian president travelling to Geothe's birthplace, Weimar, to unveil a statue to Iran's most celebrated poet, Hafez.

His itinerary did not include Hamburg, where Mr Khatami served as head of an Iranian cultural mission before the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Before leaving for Berlin, top Iranian officials were optimistic that improved ties with Germany may have wider benefits in relations with Europe as a whole, and further afield.

"Better ties with Germany will increase awareness in the United States that it has no choice but to expand relations with Iran," said Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. "We hope that expansion of relations with European countries will lead to a revision of American policies towards Iran."

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See also:

10 Jul 00 | Middle East
Germany tightens security for Khatami
26 Feb 00 | Middle East
Khatami's caution to West
15 Jul 99 | Middle East
Analysis: Student power in Iran
20 Jan 00 | Middle East
Iran frees German businessman
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