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Iran: What Was Behind Straw's Dramatic Visit?

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's visit to Tehran yesterday came amid widespread speculation that London is trying to broker a way for Iran and the United States to bridge their differences sufficiently to cooperate in the global war on terrorism. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the prospects for such cooperation and the obstacles both Washington and Tehran would have to overcome.

Prague, 26 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's one-day visit to Iran yesterday was dramatic for two reasons.

It was the first visit to the Islamic Republic by such a top-ranking British official since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

And the visit -- originally due for later this year -- was unexpectedly moved up following a telephone conversation between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

The sudden advancing of Straw's trip fueled speculation that he came to Iran to follow up on the Khatami-Blair conversation, during which the Iranian leader condemned terrorism. Many observers suggest London wants to explore whether Tehran is ready to cooperate with the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, which is seeking to punish accused Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia for sheltering him.

The U.S. and Iran both despise bin Laden and the Taliban. Washington accuses bin Laden of masterminding the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington. And Shiite Iran loathes the militant Sunni Islam practiced by bin Laden and the Taliban. Tehran almost went to war against the Taliban three years ago after the militia killed nine of its diplomats.

Straw said he had come to Iran because it "is an important source of advice on Afghanistan." He also said he discussed with Khatami and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi "the approach needed to deal with terrorism." But he said he carried no message to Iran from the U.S. and had come to seek "an international consensus" -- not military assistance -- in any action against bin Laden.

After the meetings yesterday, Kharrazi said any action against terrorists can only be achieved through international consensus, adding that any operations otherwise will have a "negative" regional impact.

The statements leave it unclear as to exactly what common ground London may be exploring between Washington and Tehran. But analysts say one possibility is that the two sides might move close enough in their definitions of terrorism to work together against it.

Shahram Chubin is a regional expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland. He tells RFE/RL that London is well-placed to talk about the definition of terrorism with Iran. That is because London previously negotiated a successful end to its own terrorist problem with Iran in the case of British writer Salman Rushdie.

"Iran and Britain had a terrorist problem in the form of the Rushdie case, a case that allegedly was very difficult to solve because it had been the object of a fatwa from (the Islamic Republic's late founder) Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Despite the domestic divisions on this issue, President Khatami managed to get the authorities, including the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), to accept that Iran, as a government, would not enforce the fatwa."

Following that acceptance, Britain and Iran resumed diplomatic relations in 1999.

Chubin says this British success could provide a way for Washington and Iran to negotiate at least a partial solution to their own dispute over terrorism. Washington demands Iran give up its support for the Lebanese-Shiite Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist groups that have targeted civilians in their war on Israel. Iran regards the organizations as national liberation groups and itself refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell this week reiterated Washington's demand that Tehran change its position on terrorism. He said that if Iran wants to be part of the anti-terrorism coalition, it must first change some of what he called its "patterns of the past in supporting terrorism." He also has previously warned that states "that continue [supporting terrorism] are going to have a problem with us."

Chubin says that some of Iran's reformists might be open to redefining Tehran's support for militant groups to exclude activities that the West considers terrorism but that, so far, there has been no national debate on that subject.

"Nobody in [Iran's domestic] dialogue has said on the Middle East question, yes, we support the Palestinians. Yes, they are our brothers, our cousins. Yes, it's a Muslim issue. Yes, we are a Muslim state which has a leadership role. But no, this is not our war, and we will not encourage the killing of innocent civilians in the [course] of that support."

Chubin says that if there is such a debate within Iran, any proponents of acceding to Western demands that Iran stop its alleged support of state terrorism will face strong opposition from the country's hard-liners:

"It's very clear that the conservatives, the hard-line faction opposing Khatami, have absolutely no interest in using this opportunity to improve relations with the U.S. because they fear that the opening up of relations with the U.S. will entail a weakening of their position domestically."

Analysts say that ultimately the key to finding any room for cooperation on terrorism likely lies with Supreme Leader Khamenei. The supreme leader gave an early endorsement to President Khatami's expressions of sympathy to the U.S., but in recent days he has expressed an increasingly hard-line position against cooperation with Washington.

Dpa quotes Khamenei as saying today in Tehran, "We reject joining the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism (and) we condemn the American definition of terrorism."

He added that the American approach that "either you are with us or with the terrorists" is both arrogant and imperialistic and we say that we are neither with you nor with the terrorists.

Commentators in Iran have predicted that Khamenei will likely forbid any Iranian concessions on ways to cooperate with the U.S. over terrorism. Ghassem Sho'leh-Sa'adi, a professor at Tehran University, told RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Fereydoon Zarnegar that Khamenei has consistently opposed any efforts toward U.S.-Iranian rapprochement in the past.

"Whenever the president or anyone else attempted to normalize the Iran-America relationship, that person was confronted with the same thing. Mr. Khamenei called them simple-minded or weak and intimidated characters. As far as I know, Mr. Khamenei has always been the obstacle, and I doubt that he will now be for renewal of the relationship."

With Straw's one-day visit to Iran over, the British foreign secretary is expected to brief U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on his trip. Powell said yesterday that he is interested in hearing Straw's "observations."

As the U.S. and Iran assess each other over terrorism, both sides have good reasons to carefully weigh whatever decisions they make. Washington has repeatedly said that the crisis over Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan is only the first phase of a protracted global war against terrorism, in which any states that host terrorists will not be exempt from punishment.

That means that if the two sides do not take this opportunity to cooperate now, their relationship would well worsen in the future.