Al-Ahram Weekly Online
27 Sep. - 3 Oct. 2001
Issue No.553
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Just dropping by?

As the British Foreign Secretary courts Iran to aid a US-led coalition against terrorism, Tehran struggles for consensus and considers the incentives for cooperation. Azadeh Moaveni reports

For all the dramatic controversy surrounding the British foreign secretary's one-day visit to Iran, Jack Straw departed from Tehran leaving as many questions in his wake as he met upon his arrival. Because he repeatedly denied that he "arrived with a shopping list" of demands from Washington, Straw's visit -- the first by a UK secretary since the 1979 revolution -- did not clarify what, if any, support Iran might lend to a US-led international campaign against terrorism.

Straw claimed he was in Iran on a purely bilateral mission, to deepen the two nations' understanding, and to share in a "celebration of Islamic faith and culture." Straw also explained to Iran the scope of American fury over the events of 11 September and its implications, and reassured that the unfolding conflict was not between the West and Islam.

But Iranians were sceptical that Straw would make such a hasty and, in his words, "historic" visit to reassure Iran about the nature of the conflict and to discuss cooperation on fighting the narcotics trade. The hard-line newspaper Resalat speculated in an editorial the day before the visit that perhaps the United States might offer Iran the same reward it did Pakistan for supporting its campaign -- a lifting of economic sanctions. Iranian analysts close to both reformists and conservatives believe the substance of Straw's visit would be conducted behind closed doors, and not readily communicated to the public or the media.

Speculation is rife that Straw told Tehran, on behalf of the United States, that Iran must consider ending its support for the Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and the Lebanese Hizbullah. While Straw said the UK was not seeking Iran's military help in US-led strikes against the Taliban, he said Iran was "an important source of advice on Afghanistan."

Iranian sources say Tehran might share intelligence on Afghanistan and the Taliban with the US, but would not publicly acknowledge doing so.

Reports emerged from Washington shortly after the attacks that the US would use the UK as an intermediary with Tehran. Britain's close political ties with the United States, and its long experience in Iran makes it an ideal go-between at such a sensitive time.

For Iran, British involvement and talk of a UN-led coalition raises an opaque curtain through which Tehran can more comfortably explore options that are domestically explosive, namely, relations with the United States. The "efforts of such friendly nations," said cleric Taha Hashemi, a cleric close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can help the US and Iran build trust, contacts and eventually tangible achievements.

Some hardliners, especially to the far right, worry that cooperation between the US and Iran might have dangerously unpredictable implications.

Opposition to the "Great Satan" is a rallying cry and pillar of the Islamic Republic's identity. In a country gripped by a factional power struggle, mending ties with the US is an extremely delicate issue.

Some right-wing daily newspapers opposed any Iranian involvement in the US military operation "Infinite Justice," which they dubbed "Infinite Arrogance" and "Infinite Imperialism." Others, like prominent former-MP Mohamed Javad Larijani, spoke of "golden opportunities."

Factional disagreement aside, diplomats in Tehran feared that both hardliners and reformists alike were missing the implied threat to Iran were it to refuse any cooperation with the US and any change its relationship to extremist groups.

In part, Iran officially opposes any military attack on Afghanistan out of fear of precipitating a mass exodus of Afghanis into Iran -- something the Islamic Republic is ill-equipped to deal with, as it already struggles to house the world's largest refugee population. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi emphasised this in his meeting with Straw: "A rash, hasty action will lead in the long run to insoluble problems. We must avoid actions that might cause a catastrophe," But a high-level Iranian official said "surgical strikes," that only targeted Osama Bin Laden's bases, might be acceptable.

Straw said the UK would share intelligence evidence linking Bin Laden and his organisation Al-Qa'ida [The Base] to the US attacks. There was also speculation that Straw would ask for Iranian intelligence information on the whereabouts of Emad Mughniyeh, a Lebanese national associated with Hizbullah and considered by the US to be responsible for terrorist attacks against Americans in the 1980s.

As the United States determines what it wants and what it will offer members of its coalition, Iran will have a wider margin of freedom to decide on its contribution than it will once the US sets its course. In the meantime, both sides are aware that this a window of opportunity that will not remain open indefinitely.

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