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Britain Seeks 'Deepening Rapprochement' With Iran

Monday, 24 September 2001 12:00 AM

Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami while flying to the United States last week for talks with President George Bush and a visit to the World Trade Center in New York, devastated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

"The first message I am taking is that my visit is part of a continuing process for a deepening rapprochement with Iran," Straw said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.

"The second, of course, is to talk to the Iranian government and representatives about the effect of the Taliban's extremism on the security of the whole region."

He said that Iran, with more than two million Afghan refugees on its borders, "has more reason than almost any other nation in the world to know about the dreadful consequences of the extremism of the Taliban." However, Straw's visit has met with a mixed reaction in Iran.

While reformists who support Khatami welcomed the visit as a step toward a thaw in Iran's relations with the West, more radical officials and media dismissed it as a mission on behalf of the United States, which does not have diplomatic relations with Tehran since the 1979 occupation of the U.S. Embassy and seizure of hostages by young Khomeini zealots for 444 days. The U.S. State Department still lists Iran as a state that sponsors terrorism.

British-Iranian relations have been warming since earlier this year, with the first moves made on the cultural front. In September 1998, the two countries decided to normalize relations, upgrading diplomatic representation to an ambassadorial level in May 1999. The thaw proved helpful as Blair sought to enlist Iran's support in forging an international alliance against terrorism.

Straw pointed out in the interview his visit had been planned for November and then brought forward in the wake of the atrocities in the United States. So far, Iran has not outlined the level of support it is prepared to give any combined assault on terrorist targets in Afghanistan or any other suspected hide-out of prime suspect Osama bin Laden. Its public statements have opposed any military attack on Afghanistan, and ruled out the use of Iranian airspace for air strikes.

Although Iran has said any international reaction to the terrorist attacks should be based on strong proof, and co-coordinated with the United Nations, it has voiced support for an international coalition against terrorism.

Straw, who hinted that he would ask Iran for help with intelligence information, said there was a clear responsibility for as much of a "formal justification" as possible to be made for any military action. "There will be risks and there may well be casualties and that is a very heavy responsibility on all of us having to make these decisions - but it's obviously very, very much worse for those taking the risk and their families," he said.

Britain has offered $37 million to Afghanistan's neighbors to help them cope with the huge increase in refugees from the country. Iran's share of the aid has not yet been revealed.

Straw is scheduled to hold talks on Tuesday with Iran's President Khatami and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Analysts said Blair's initiative in enlisting Khatami's support would be valued in Washington. Iran wants normalization of its relations with the United States and has long lobbied for the freeing up of billions of dollars in its assets, frozen in the United States in the aftermath of the embassy takeover.

In its Monday edition, the pro-government English-language newspaper Iran Daily implicitly welcomed the visit, noting that the major point on Straw's agenda will most likely be the "future of Iran's ties with the West, particularly the United States."

The paper, however, regretted that the existing "wall of mistrust between Iran and the United States has left the issue of direct talks and diplomatic bargaining in the dark."

"From a strategic point of view, Washington wants Tehran to revise its Palestinian policy," the daily said, adding that the Iranian nation and government consider "spiritual support for Palestinians a fundamental principle." Iran however, it added, "draws a clear line between the legitimate struggle of Palestinians for their homeland and fighting terrorism."

The hard-line daily Kayhan International said, however, that Straw's optimistic remarks ahead of his Tehran visit "would have sounded more routine if the visit to the country would have taken place in November as was scheduled."

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami while flying to the United States last week for talks with President George Bush and a visit to the World Trade Center in New York, devastated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. The first message I am...
Monday, 24 September 2001 12:00 AM
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