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Ignoring American Sanctions, London to Forge Ties with Tehran

Taking a starkly different approach to Iran than its American ally, Britain is preparing to resume full diplomatic relations with Iran.

These ties, which will be marked by an exchange of ambassadors, will signal a formal conclusion to a protracted dispute between London and Tehran.

The dispute was sparked nine years ago, when the late Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa — or death decree — on British Muslim author Salman Rushdie for alleged blasphemy in his book “The Satanic Verses.”

Britain has been working to improve relations with Tehran for the past two years, but the breakthrough came only after an agreement on the Rushdie affair was reached when British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook met his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, at the United Nations last September.

The British Foreign Office has dismissed suggestions that the deal over Rushdie was badly flawed — the author is still living in hiding and under guard in Britain — or that he was sacrificed to commercial interests, particularly among those anxious for a piece of the action in Iran’s oil and gas sectors.

While the U.N. deal did not win Rushdie his freedom — Iran claims it is incapable of reversing or rescinding the fatwa — the foreign ministers managed to finesse the issue.

Since then, Britain has condemned attacks on Iran by Iraqi-backed rebels and, more controversially, it has cracked down on fund raising by London-based Iranian opposition groups — an act that the groups describe as “appeasement” of Tehran.

While Britain has been increasingly positive where Iran was concerned, it is understood to remain concerned about Tehran’s nuclear aspirations.

This concern did not prevent Britain from announcing last month that it was lifting its ban on exporting military and security equipment and that it was supplying Iran with bullet-proof vests to help border guards combat drug smuggling from Afghanistan.

The improved relationship will be reinforced in June when British Foreign Office Minister Derek Fatchett becomes the first British minister to visit Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Meanwhile, Washington maintains its trade sanctions on Iran and says that, despite improvements since the 1997 election of the relatively moderate President Mohammed Khatami, Tehran still is not conforming to “acceptable standards of international behavior.”

The Clinton administration recently concluded that “despite some signs that the Iranian government wants to improve its standing in the international community, Iran continues to pursue policies that threaten the interests of the United States.”

When asked about Britain’s ties with Iran, State Department spokesman James Foley said Tuesday: “A number of our European allies and friends do have diplomatic relations with Iran. We’re not against that.”

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