Khatami on UN charm offensive
By Guy Dinmore
September 6, 2000
President Mohammad Khatami of Iran may have been weakened by serious
blows to his political reforms at home but senior officials say he still
has enough support from the conservative establishment to launch a diplomatic
offensive during his current week-long visit to New York.
Several of the president's closest supporters are behind bars and almost
all the liberal newspapers he fostered have been closed by the hardline
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, who is closely associated
with the conservative camp, gave the go-ahead for the crackdown but senior
figures say that on foreign policy, there remains a consensus that Iran
must return to the international stage, primarily for economic reasons.
Iranian state television said Mr Khatami would meet 30 heads of state
during his stay in New York for the United Nations Millennium Summit and
the General Assembly.
Part of Iran's attempts to end its isolation is an improvement of relations
with Arab states. Mr Khatami is expected to meet Abdelaziz Bouteflika,
the Algerian president, seven years after Algiers broke relations with
Tehran, accusing it of helping an Islamist insurgency.
Arab diplomats in Tehran also see a marked improvement in relations
with Egypt. "There is a unanimous decision among Iran's leaders, reformists
and conservatives, to mend relations with Egypt," a senior envoy said.
"Alleged support given by Iran for Islamic militants in Egypt is now
less of a concern to Cairo. Iran is much more pragmatic now."
But for Egypt, literally concrete barriers to better ties exist in the
form of a street in Tehran named after Khaled Islambouli, the Egyptian
army officer who assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, and a giant
mural celebrating his deed.
In the Gulf, the recent rapprochement between Tehran and its neighbours
after decades of hostility could lead to accords with Kuwait and Qatar
on development of shared oil and gas fields, as well as a security pact
with Saudi Arabia on fighting crime and drug trafficking.
Present co-operation with Saudi Arabia is a far cry from the 1980s when
Iran was seeking to export its Islamic revolution at the cost of the pro-western
Arab sheikhdoms. Even Mr Khatami, as minister of Islamic guidance in 1984,
branded the Saudi government as "colonialist lackeys" after an
attack on Iranian pilgrims in Medina. Iran's conservative commentators
portray the new alignments in the Gulf as a bid by Tehran to weaken US
and British influence, a process they say is viewed with alarm by Washington
But analysts disagree, saying Iran recognises the Gulf states cannot
or would not even want to remove the US security presence. Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh,
an Iranian researcher at London University, thinks the US has given the
green light to its Arab allies to mend fences with Iran. "All parts
of the jigsaw are falling into place, leading to a final settlement of
Iran-US ties," he said.
Iran's reformists, analysts say, are hoping for a significant move by
the US, such as the lifting of economic sanctions or the unfreezing of
its assets, that could allow direct talks to start.
Mehdi Karrubi, Iran's speaker of parliament and a long-time ally of
Mr Khatami, returned to Tehran from New York on Sunday bearing hopeful
news after a UN-sponsored conference of parliamentarians. "It seems
there are efforts under way in the US for lifting sanctions against Iran,"
He said he had met representatives of US oil companies lobbying for
an end to sanctions. He also had a rare conversation with four Congressmen,
including two Jews. Mr Karrubi's aides insist it was an unplanned encounter
at a reception.
But in Washington, US officials say Iran's conviction after a closed
trial of 10 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel, followed by its
testing of the Shahab-3 long-range missile, have probably eliminated any
prospect of starting direct talks this year. "The next move has to
come from Tehran. Nothing more can be expected from this side at this stage,"
said one official.
US and Israeli concern is also focused on Iran's close relationship
with Syria and the aid and military supplies channelled through Damascus
to Hizbollah, the Lebanese Islamist movement that fought the Israeli occupation
of south Lebanon.
Dr Mojtahed-Zadeh thinks Iran is sticking to a policy of opposing the
Arab-Israeli peace process in its current form but will not actively seek
to block an agreement. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, was given
such an assurance in talks with Ayatollah Khamenei and President Khatami
in Tehran in June.