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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 15:03 GMT 16:03 UK
Analysis: Straw's visit divides Iran
A military power exhibition to mark Iran's Holy Defence Week
Washington and London are keen to get Iran on board
By the BBC's Tehran correspondent Jim Muir

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's surprise visit to Iran shows how much the current crisis is moving things rapidly on.

UK Prime Minister Blair, left, and Germany's Chancellor Schroeder at the EU summit
One paper suggested the mission be renamed Operation Infinite Imperialism
It has clearly provided an opening for Iran and Britain to move closer together and for Britain to act as a channel of communication with its close ally, the United States.

But it presents a stark choice for Iran; its relations are bad both with the United States and with the Taleban.

And it has divided the country's reformists and extremists.

Anti-terror coalition

Mr Straw's visit comes in the context of Western coalition building and the foreign minister has said he hopes the visit will help lead to closer co-operation in the fight against terrorism.

But relations between Iran and the UK are not smooth and it is the first visit by a British foreign minister since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Mr Straw's predecessor, Robin Cook, had planned to make a groundbreaking visit to Tehran, but it was postponed several times because of a delicate political situation here and the extreme historical sensitivity of bilateral relations.

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Afghanistan’s neighbours: Regional fears

Indeed, Mr Straw's visit has stirred deep controversy in the Iranian press. Iranian hardliners have attacked the trip, though reformist moderates have said the current situation offers opportunities for Iran to improve its international situation.

"The bad smell of the British is in our nostrils once again," said one right-wing Tehran newspaper.

Rocky history

It was the British who discovered oil here nearly 100 years ago, exploiting it for decades more and bequeathing a legacy of mistrust.

Relations were then dealt a huge blow by the Salman Rushdie affair which erupted in 1989. The death fatwa and reward - issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini who claimed the British author's book The Satanic Verses blasphemed Iran - remain today.

President Khatami of Iran
Khatami wants any military operation to be UN- not US-led
Moreover, Mr Straw's trip is being widely seen in the context of Western coalition-building rather than purely bilateral relations and the conservatives are strongly opposed to an American-led attack on Afghanistan.

Although Iran's relations with the Taleban are extremely hostile - the two countries very nearly went to war three years ago - for hardliners in particular the United States remains the Great Satan.

And the conservatives view an attack on Afghanistan as an attempt to exploit the crisis in order to spread US hegemony over the region.

They also argue strongly that any kind of association with a Western assault could stir up a hornet's nest in the Muslim world if it inflicts more suffering on innocent people.

Reformists' optimism

By contrast, the reformist newspapers stress the opportunities the current crisis may offer Iran - a chance to melt the ice with the West. Perhaps to win tangible concessions such as being taken off the US State Department's list of terrorist-sponsoring nations, and having American sanctions lifted.

All Iranian leaders have condemned the attacks on New York and Washington. But they have also said there should not be any major assault on Afghanistan, and have already said they will not allow the use of their airspace for strikes against Afghanistan.

They are less categorical, though, about possible eventual intelligence-sharing.

But even President Khatami, at whose initiative Mr Straw's visit is taking place, is strongly advocating that an international response against terrorism should be led by the United Nations, not unilateral action by a Western coalition.

With the political temperature here rising, the chances of Mr Straw winning any practical and open co-operation from the Iranian leadership do not look good.

All eyes on the Ayatollah

Much depends on the position taken by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His word is final on all major issues, and the hardliners take their cue from him.

He has made it clear that Iran will condemn any major Western assault on Afghanistan. But it is not clear whether he has given his blessing to President Khatami's foreign policy initiative with the British.

If he does, it would take a lot of heat out of the situation and produce a climate where some creative exploration might be possible.

But how much room there is for drawing Iran in to the coalition effort remains to be seen. There are obvious limits to how far Iran itself can go and it is also not yet clear whether the Americans actually want Iran on board.

See also:

21 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair pledges solidarity with US
13 Feb 00 | Middle East
Rushdie death sentence reaffirmed
21 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Twenty years of frosty relations
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