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Iran: Official Visits Britain For First Time Since 1979

No top Iranian official has paid an official visit to London since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah. That changes today, when Iran's foreign minister arrives in London for a two-day visit.

London, 10 January 2000 RFE/RL) -- During his two-day visit to the United Kingdom, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi will meet with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and also make a courtesy call on Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Officials say the Kharrazi visit offers a chance for both sides to build on the fragile improvement in relations that began in May, when the two countries exchanged ambassadors for the first time in 20 years.

London and Tehran began to normalize their ties two years ago, when Iran agreed to stop encouraging Muslims to carry out a death sentence -- a fatwa -- pronounced by former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on British writer Salman Rushdie. Khomeini had ruled that a novel by Rushdie, "The Satanic Verses," was blasphemous and insulting to Muslims. The fatwa prompted Rushdie to go into hiding for years under a police guard.

Kharrazi said on his departure from Tehran that the two countries want to develop their relations in different fields, and that Iran wants to discuss bilateral, regional and international problems.

The agenda for his talks with Cook is expected to include the Middle East peace process, regional stability, and trade.

The Foreign Office has made it clear it wants to discuss issues such as the Arab-Israeli peace process on which Britain wants Iran "to take a more constructive approach." Britain is also expected to raise the issue of Iran's support for militant groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah, that have waged attacks on Israeli targets. The agenda is also expected to include Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cook is expected to encourage Iran to sign all international treaties on weapons of mass destruction. This reflects international concern Tehran might be trying to develop such weapons. Cook will also raise the question of human rights, including death sentences reportedly given to at least six people after student unrest last July.

The Blair government invited Kharrazi to London as part of its policy of "engagement" with what had been seen as pariah states. Officials say they hope to improve relations and dispel the notion that conflict is inevitable between Islamic countries and the West.

However, there is opposition to the Iranian visit from Jewish groups, who insist that the Tehran regime remains a terrorist state that is bent on the destruction of Israel. The groups will demonstrate at the Foreign Office to highlight the imprisonment in Iran of 13 Jews accused of spying for the U.S. and Israel.

Kharrazi's visit has also run into heavy criticism at home. More than 1,000 students demonstrated in Tehran to protest a British newspaper article that criticized Khomeini's rule. The article, in the London Times, was a reprint of a 1989 obituary which said that the rule of Khomeini had been "in all significant respects a disaster" for Iran. Britain's ambassador to Iran, Nick Browne, said the article did not represent the British government's view.

Critics of the visit say it is premature, particularly in view of the strong criticism voiced by senior Iranians in recent weeks, including the foreign minister himself, on the Mideast peace talks.

But diplomats in London say Britain will press its view that Iran has no reason to oppose Arab-Israeli peace talks now that its ally, Syria, has resumed the talks. The diplomats say Iran has moved in a moderate direction since the election of President Mohammed Khatami in 1997.