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Iran: Khatami's Visit To Austria, Greece Highlights U.S.-EU Divide

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is visiting Austria and Greece this week to strengthen Tehran's ties with Europe, despite his country being branded part of an "axis of evil" by Washington. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at Khatami's tour and why Europe and America regard Iran so differently.

Prague, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Just four years ago, a trip by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to Europe generated enormous media interest.

That was in March 1999, when Khatami became the first Iranian head of state to visit a European country since the Islamic Revolution 20 years earlier. His destination was Italy, and his purpose was to show how much Iranian-European relations could improve despite Washington's efforts to isolate Tehran.

The extent to which Khatami succeeded can be seen in his travel schedule since then. Over the past four years, Khatami has visited France and Germany, as well as Japan. His travels to Europe -- though infrequent -- have become so commonplace that he receives only the press attention accorded to any other touring head of state.

This week, Khatami is visiting Austria and Greece. He arrived yesterday in Vienna and today is holding talks with Austrian officials, including President Thomas Klestil. He is also due to meet European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Tomorrow he flies to Athens to meet top Greek leaders.

In Austria and Greece, Khatami's visit is intended to encourage closer trade ties. But its most significant aspect is likely to be how much it highlights the increasingly different strategies Europe and Washington pursue regarding Iran's government.

The Iranian president's tour comes just two months after U.S. President George W. Bush dubbed Tehran -- along with Iraq and North Korea -- part of an "axis of evil." U.S. officials say the three states are seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction that they could furnish to terrorist organizations intent on targeting America or other Western countries.

RFE/RL recently spoke with Daniel Keohane, a security expert at the Center for European Reform in London, about why Europe and the U.S. regard Iran so differently. He said Europe and Washington both worry about the Islamic Revolution's history of hostility to the West. But Keohane says Europe -- unlike Washington -- is convinced Iran is changing and that the process can be encouraged by supporting its reformists.

"Certainly, the Europeans are aware of possible hostility on Iran's part both towards Europe or the U.S. But I think they feel that it is better to try and support the more reformist groups in Iran as much as possible through dialogue."

He continues, "The Europeans feel that the more support the Iranian reformers get, the more chance they have of succeeding and of reforming Iran in a way that Europeans and the U.S., for that matter, would like. Whereas the U.S. looks more at the [weapons] capabilities that Iran may or may not have or may be developing and worries about that."

Immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, European countries actively supported international efforts to politically and economically isolate Iran's new government over fears it would export its revolutionary values and destabilize the region. The United States severed its ties completely with Iran when radical students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

But in the 1990s, and particularly after the election of Khatami in 1997, European states improved relations with Iran, while Washington and Tehran remained enemies. European companies have also made substantial investments in Iran's potentially lucrative oil and gas sectors, ignoring Washington's threats to slap punitive sanctions on foreign firms that do so. The measures are intended to discourage investment in Iran, which the U.S. accuses of sponsoring terrorist groups, specifically the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic militant groups.

Keohane says the European strategy of developing closer ties with Iran is partly motivated by a sense that Europe has made progress in resolving its own past terrorism crises with Tehran through dialogue.

Those crises include Germany accusing top-ranking Iranian officials of being behind the assassination of Iranian-Kurdish dissidents in Berlin in 1992. The charges led to a temporary withdrawal of EU ambassadors from Tehran and a freezing of relations. Another crisis involved Iran's Islamic death sentence against British writer Salman Rushdie, something Tehran in recent years has assured London it will not carry out.

Keohane says the assurances London received in the Rushdie affair convinced many in Europe that Iran can be induced to change its behavior through better relations.

"Those types of assurances and actions help to an enormous degree to at least reassure the Europeans that they are on the right course by talking. Of course, one can never be absolutely definite [about] what might happen when it comes to terrorism generally, but certainly Iran has responded positively to a certain degree to European overtures."

With European states now continuing to improve their ties with Iran, several European leaders have reacted coolly to Washington's labeling of Iran as part of an "axis of evil."

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said last month that the 15-nation bloc -- which includes Austria and Greece -- will continue to seek cooperation with Iran.

Pique said, "We profoundly respect the opinions of the (U.S.) administration, our principal ally in every respect. But at the same time, in the European Union...we think that it is very important to support the process of reform in [Iran] and the reformist sectors."