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Iran: Teheran's Foreign Policy Looks In All Directions

London, 10 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A top Iran analyst says Teheran faces a choice of whether to orientate its foreign policy towards the East, especially Russia and China, or towards the West, particularly the European Union nations. Bijan Khajehpour spoke at a conference in London which assessed Iran's increased geopolitical importance following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its emergence as a link between the world's two most important hydrocarbon reserves -- the Persian Gulf and Caspian.

The conference, entitled "Iran: Looking East or West?" was staged last week at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Khajehpour is the western-educated managing director of the Teheran-based Atieh Bahar Management Consultancy, and editor of its London-based monthly newsletter, "Iran Focus." He said Teheran has several current needs in its foreign relations. They include: a requirement for investment to develop the Iranian economy; a need for technology, not only in the oil sector, but in other industrial areas; and an easing of tension in the region, so that Iran can develop its strategic position between the Caspian and Persian Gulf, and go ahead with plans to build oil pipelines from Central Asia. .

Khajehpour said, in order to achieve these goals, Iran could look to Russia and China, taking advantage of a lack of political friction with both countries, and apparent interest from Beijing and Moscow.

The conference was told that China regards Iran as crucial, because Teheran has ten percent of the world's oil reserves and over 15 percent of world gas reserves, while it has a growing hunger for industrial goods.

Moscow's interest is dictated by Iran's strategic position, which, as one speaker said, holds "the keys of Central Asia."

But Khajehpour said Iran faces problems in looking to Russia and China, because Teheran's present industrial base is Western; Eastern technologies do not provide the qualities it needs; and Russia and China have limited means to finance Iranian projects. The alternative for Iran is to mend fences with the EU and continue its pro-European foreign policy. This would bring commercial and investment benefits and help integration into the world community. However, there are problems with this policy, too, because of friction on political issues such as human rights; Iran's alleged support for terrorism; European countries' concerns over the Salman Rushdie case; and the current diplomatic impasse with the EU nations.

Khajehpour said another possibility - an attempt to start a dialogue with the U.S. - is now one course of action being discussed in Iran's inner circles of power, despite the clear difficulties it raises. He said a better relationship with the U.S. would be a huge psychological boost to the Islamic regime; would bring immense commercial, investment and technological benefits; while an easing of tension in the region would benefit everyone in the Mideast.

But the obstacles are formidable, including "the emotional nature" of Iran-U.S. relations and lack of confidence in the current atmosphere. The U.S. charges Iran with developing weapons of mass destruction, supporting terrorism, and opposing the MidEast peace process. However, Khajehpour said there is an increasing international lobby for a Iran-U.S. dialogue, not only by analysts and intellectuals in the U.S., but by the main players in the region, including Saudi Arabia. Khajehpour pointed out that the main political factions in Iran have different political agendas. Conservatives focus on relations with Islamic countries, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt; moderates say foreign relations should serve Iran's commercial and investment needs; and the "Old Leftists" argue for a revolutionary approach of anti-Americanism and ties with developing nations.

Khajehpour said one option for Teheran is to normalize ties and mend fences with the Arab world to create a channel of reintegration into the world community. This would ease tensions in the Persian Gulf; bring potential investment benefits, and could work in favor of Iran's relations with the West. But there is a lack of trust in mutual relations, and some disputed Persian Gulf islands are a problem.

Khajehpour said the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Teheran next month will provide a platform for a rapprochement. He said more and more voices in the southern Persian Gulf, including the Saudis and Kuwait, favor a better relationship. Khajehpour said Iran's most realistic choice is to try to mend fences with the Gulf Cooperation Council, while having an eye on improving relations with the EU. A rapprochement with the U.S. will be a long-term prospect, and will need more engagement by both sides.

As to the question posed by the conference, "Iran: Looking East or West?," Khajehpour predicted that, in the short-term, Iran will look South to the Gulf. In the medium-term, Iran will look West, due to its need for capital and technology. And, in the long-term, he said, Iran would like to look in all directions and become a regional power.