LONDON, Jan. 11 (JTA) — About 50 Jews gathered in central London this week to protest a visit by the first Iranian Cabinet minister to make an official trip to Britain since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Holding a banner reading “Free the Iranian Jews,” the demonstrators held a vigil Monday opposite the entrance to Downing Street, where Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“This is a simple humanitarian plea for 13 people who have been picked up and held in Iranian jails for nearly a year,” said Eldred Tabachnik, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who joined the demonstration. “We are saying, ‘That is too long; let them go.’ ”
It is not known whether Kharrazi saw the demonstrators, but he is reported to have received a far warmer welcome from Blair and from his British counterpart, Robin Cook, who launched the rapprochement with Iran some 18 months ago.
On Tuesday, Britain and Iran signed a joint declaration to strengthen diplomatic ties, promote trade, and fight terrorism and drug trafficking.
The agreement, which put aside their differences about human rights, came at the end of Kharrazi’s visit to London.
Last May, Britain and Iran exchanged ambassadors after a 20-year break in relations.
The two countries agreed to restore diplomatic relations after Iranian officials agreed to withdraw their support for efforts to execute a fatwa, or religious ruling, against British author Salman Rushdie, which was issued by the late Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Rushdie still lives under close police guard following Khomeini’s 1989 call on Muslims to assassinate the writer for alleged blasphemy in his novel “The Satanic Verses.”
Critics of European efforts to rehabilitate pariah states, such as Iran and Libya, in an attempt to encourage their moderate elements, regard such official visits as premature while those states remain hostile to the Israeli- Palestinian peace process and maintain links with terrorist organizations.
In Washington, there is concern that Iran will use terrorist networks in a bid to scuttle progress in the peace process.