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Khatami on UN charm offensive

By Guy Dinmore
Financial Times
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 judiciary.

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 and London.

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 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.

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