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U.K.: Arrest Of Iranian Ex-Diplomat Threatens London-Tehran Ties

Last week's arrest in Britain of Iran's former ambassador to Argentina has resulted in an international row. Argentina wants him extradited in connection with a 1994 bomb attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Iran, meanwhile, is demanding his release.

London, 28 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The continued detention in London of Hadi Soleimanpour, Iran's former ambassador to Argentina, continues to threaten ties between Tehran and London.

Soleimanpour was arrested on 21 August in connection with a 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires that left 85 people dead and 200 more injured. Argentina is seeking the extradition of a total of eight Iranian officials in connection with the blast.

Soleimanpour was denied bail and will remain in detention pending a court decision on the Buenos Aires extradition request.

Argentine police allege that Soleimanpour, who was serving as ambassador at the time of the blast, helped the bombers locate and access the cultural center. Soleimanpour's lawyer Michel Massih stresses that his client has "publicly and strenuously" denied the charges.

Similar denials have come from Tehran, where the arrest has prompted a wave of protest from government officials and the media. Tehran last weekend announced it would cut all cultural and economic ties with Buenos Aires, and is now threatening similar action against Britain.

Iranian President Mohammed Khatami on 24 August denounced Soleimanpour's detention: "Iran will stage a strong confrontation with the government of Argentina. The charge d'affaires of the British Embassy [in Tehran] has been summoned and will be summoned again. The British government should stop this act and even apologize to Iran. We would do everything in our power to nullify these baseless accusations."

But Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has indicated the government will not interfere in what was now a matter for the courts. "The Times" newspaper today reports that Straw has spoken to his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharazzi, several times during the past few days. He has also met in London with Iran's deputy foreign minister, Ali Ahani.

But such talks have failed to soften the stance of either side. Tehran has called Soleimanpour's arrest politically motivated and says it may retaliate if the issue is not resolved by 29 August.

Argentina's move to extradite the eight Iranian suspects comes a month after an admission by the country's president, Nestor Kirchener, that there had been no notable progress in the bombing investigation. Argentina's Jewish community is the largest in South America, and the unresolved attack has been a political sore point in that country.

Belgian authorities yesterday detained a second Iranian diplomat, Saied Baghban, in connection with the bombing. Baghban, who has diplomatic immunity, was later released.

Soleimanpour, who is 47 and married with two children, was pursuing a doctoral degree in environmental studies at Britain's Durham University at the time of his arrest.

Alireza Nourizadeh heads the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in London. He says he has followed the bombing case closely since 1994.

"Mr. Soleimanpour, as far as I am concerned, may not be directly involved in what happened. But as an ambassador, and someone who had very close links with the intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards since he was recruited by the intelligence unit in 1981, I believe he knows what happened. He knows who was responsible and he knows all the details about this plan and the people who carried out this atrocity," Nourizadeh says.

Soleimanpour's lawyer has argued that the former diplomat has nothing to hide. He has been reported as saying: "This is not a case of somebody who is trying to avoid detection. My client came to Britain openly, on an ordinary passport, without diplomatic immunity. He enrolled at Durham as an ordinary student, without financial help from the Iranian government. He was aware of the allegations and did nothing about it in terms of avoiding the public eye."

The row comes at a delicate time for British-Iranian relations. Straw has visited Iran four times since becoming foreign secretary two years ago, and has made strengthening ties with Tehran a centerpiece of his tenure.

But Nourizadeh said the British government should have expected the issue would be an explosive one: "I think the reaction of the Iranian authorities is natural, because they are very concerned and they are very worried that he may open his mouth and tell his interrogators -- whether they are British or Argentinean -- what he knows. That's why I think this is going to be a very, very important issue, for Iranian-British relations."

It is unclear if Tehran's demand to see the matter resolved by tomorrow will be met. Soleimanpour is due to appear in court again on 29 August. But the British government does not appear likely to budge, and British extradition proceedings can typically take several months to complete.