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British Diplomatic Overture May Have Hardened Iran’s Stance

Britain is being criticized for its diplomatic initiative aimed at wooing Iran into a U.S.- led coalition against terror.

Reacting to Foreign Minister Jack Straw’s visit last week to Tehran, one U.S. analyst told British television that it had been “absurd” for Britain to court a “terrorist state.”

This view is strongly shared by Israel, which is fearful that the new anti-terrorist coalition would include virulently anti-Israeli countries.

Moreover, Israeli officials — including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — were incensed after Straw was quoted last week by an Iranian newspaper as saying, “One of the factors which helps breed terrorism is the anger which many people in this region feel at events over the years in Palestine.”

Sharon initially refused to meet last week with Straw, who visited Israel after traveling to Iran. The meeting was rescheduled after Sharon held a 15-minute telephone conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Straw’s visit — during which, according to some reports, he may have carried a message for Iranian leaders from Washington — was the first made by a British foreign secretary to Iran since that nation’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But it apparently backfired when, hours after Straw left Tehran, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, launched a bitter attack on the American-led anti-terror coalition.

“We do not believe America is sincere enough to lead an international move against terrorism,” Khamenei said Sept. 26.

“America has its hands deep in blood for all the crimes committed by the Zionist regime.”

Khamenei spoke two days after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Iran should halt its support for terrorism if it wanted to be a part of the international anti-terror coalition.

The ayatollah made his comments to a crowd that had taken to the streets chanting “Death to America.”

Speaking on British television Sept. 27, U.S. defense strategist Richard Perle said it was “absurd” to court Iran, which he described as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Iran is “part of the problem, not part of the solution,” said Perle, who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan.

“I don’t know what Blair was trying to do,” Perle added, implying that Straw’s visit did not have Washington’s blessing.

“I don’t think there’s anything Iran can do to help us,” Perle said. “It’s a grave mistake to compromise the moral high ground by inviting terrorists to join with us.”

He added: “I think it was mistake and it was responded to with contempt, which was only to be expected from the Iranian regime.”

Iran has long been accused of supporting various terror groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as anti-Egyptian Islamic militants.

Far from leading to moderation from Iran’s leaders, Straw’s visit appears only to have bolstered their hard line.

Reacting to President Bush’s position that all countries must be either with Washington or with the terrorists, the ayatollah said the most vicious terrorists were on America’s side — a reference to U.S. support of Israel.

Announcing that Iran is not with Washington, “nor are we with the terrorists,” the ayatollah accused Washington of trying to spread its influence through Central Asia.

Moreover, Khamenei made it clear Iran would provide no help of any sort for an attack on Afghanistan.

The BBC’s Tehran correspondent described this as a “sharp hardening of tone from the Iranian leadership.”

The correspondent pointed out that even Iran’s normally mild-mannered reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, made an uncharacteristic personal attack on the U.S. president, accusing Bush of “falling prey to the arrogance of power.”

Britain has been eager to be seen as the main U.S. ally in the newly formed coalition, but its eagerness to draw in certain Arab states has raised the hackles of the Israeli leadership.

As far as Israel was concerned, the comments Straw made in the Iranian media appeared to indicate a shift in British policy.

Israeli officials were angry that the word “Palestine” was used, rather than the usual noncommittal reference to Palestinian territories. Also, Straw’s words appeared to imply that Israel’s policies were at least in part responsible for allowing terrorism to flourish.

While the Sharon-Straw meeting ultimately did take place, a state dinner that was to be hosted by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres did not occur.

While in Israel, Straw insisted that he understood the terrorist threat faced by Israel, adding that he had strongly opposed terror groups that operated from British soil.

Also straining Israeli-British relations, Britain’s Guardian newspaper quoted an unnamed official in Britain’s Foreign Office as calling Sharon “the cancer at the center of the Middle East crisis.”

Officials from the Foreign Office later denied that this remark reflected official British sentiment, but the damage had already been done.

In London, the ruling Labor Party’s Friends of Israel group — which includes a number of members of Parliament — called for an urgent meeting with Straw over the “shift of policy” toward Israel.

A spokesman for the group complained that “it seems Arabists are in full control of the Foreign Office.”

There has traditionally been a pro-Arab slant at the Foreign Office ever since British rule in Palestine ended in 1948.

Successive British prime ministers have taken a more pro-Israeli line than the Foreign Office has recommended.

Meanwhile, Straw’s controversial comment is having responses from British Jewish leaders as well.

Last Friday, the vice chairman of Labor Friends of Israel, Jon Mendelsohn, criticized Straw for “bad policy” and insisted that it reflected “Foreign Office attitudes not shared by Mr. Blair.”

Mendelsohn used to be an aide to Blair.

In another development, the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews, sent a letter to Straw complaining that his remarks had given “credence to anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda.”

Jo Wagerman, the board’s president, wrote: “It is difficult for me to underline sufficiently the damaging consequences of such statements within the context of British Jewry.”

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