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Iran: Prince Charles's Visit Seen As Attempt To Maintain Influence

Britain's crown Prince Charles has just returned from a brief visit to Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The visit -- in particular its Iranian leg -- has generated criticism in the media. It has also raised questions about the rights and wrongs of what is seen as a UK "diplomatic offensive" at a time when Iran's conservatives appear to be gaining the upper hand in domestic politics.

London, 11 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Prince Charles's visit this week to Iran -- and the earthquake-destroyed city of Bam -- has been hotly debated in the press.

Reaction has been mostly critical.

It was the first visit to the country by a member of the British royal family since the Islamic revolution 25 years ago. As such, commentators said it was laden with political symbolism, reflecting Britain's keenness to improve ties with Tehran.
"There is a political motive to it, apart from, obviously, the humanitarian visit to Bam. The reason essentially would be that the British government is trying to show its support...for the constructive, critical dialogue with Iran."

Many newspapers said the visit could be seen as giving support to authoritarian regimes. This rings true in Iran right now, as it appears conservatives have gained the upper hand in a recent election row with reformers.

Ben Faulks, a country expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says UK officials badly miscalculated if they thought the visit would not have symbolic or political overtones.

"British men in the Iran embassy were saying that it was a non-political visit, but of course it was impossible not to foresee that it was going to be perceived as a political visit. In the sense that, clearly, it's a highly charged environment you are walking into, particularly at the moment, so I think that if that was the intention [to have a non-political visit], then they have miscalculated," Faulks said.

Commentator Michael Gove went further in the London "Times" newspaper. He wrote, "If the prince really wanted to do more to help Muslims then he could have used his trip to Iran to ask some pertinent questions. He could have drawn attention to the absence of a free press, free elections and free speech." The paper continued: "[The prince] could have asked why the tragic people of Bam were condemned to live in [poorly constructed] housing in an oil-rich country that uses its resources to fund terror abroad and build nuclear weapons."

But not everyone sees it that way. Ali Ansari is a lecturer in Iranian studies at Exeter University in the U.K.. He says in his opinion, on balance, the visit was a good thing. He says the appearance of Prince Charles in Iran focused newspaper attention on Iran's problems.

"There is a concern that many Iranians will interpret this as British support for the regime, but I think that on balance, the visit was probably a good thing because it's drawn attention to what's going on in Iran in a way that the British [newspapers] were not paying any attention at all prior to that. This has drawn an amazing amount of coverage in the press. And the other thing is, of course, that Charles's humanitarian side, I think played very well. But it has focused the mind, I mean it is certainly true that irrespective of Charles going or not, the silence of the Europeans on what is going on in Iran has been quite deafening," Ansari said.

Ansari says the British government is wise in keeping diplomatic contacts going. He says these contacts help to bridge over the one defining characteristic of Iran's conservative faction -- its antagonism to the U.S. and U.K.

"I mean, I think there are two levels here. One is to keep a diplomatic offensive in terms of securing Iran as an ally in the war on terror in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and I think in some ways that will, in any case, bring results that the reformists want anyway. If Iran has rebuilt bridges with the United States and the United Kingdom, by default, the conservatives will have orchestrated their own demise, because what they are doing is bridging over the one real final distinguishing factor of the Islamic revolution in Iran, which is antagonism with the United States," Ansari said.

Faulks agrees Britain should keep communication open.

"There is a political motive to it, apart from, obviously, the humanitarian visit to Bam. The reason essentially would be that the British government is trying to show its support, this policy that is ongoing for some time now for the constructive, critical dialogue with Iran. It's quite a bold thing to do. It is quite a juncture, I would say," Faulks said.

Mahjoob Zweiri, a research fellow at Durham University, says the reason may be simpler. He points out that Britain and Iran have a long tradition of good ties dating back to the 19th century. Perhaps, he says, Prince Charles's visit was just intended to emphasize this.