Leading Article: A welcome return of realpolitik

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PRESIDENT MOHAMMAD Khatami of Iran has gone to Rome to talk to the Italian government about trade links - for which read "oil". After 20 years of Iranophobia in Europe and America, this is a welcome return to diplomatic business as usual. It shows the Iranian government that it isn't excluded from Europe as long as it renounces terror, and shows the Iranian people that there are advantages to strengthening a moderate government. It shows the world that the dangerous phase of Iranian politics is over.

Oil wealth has governed the fluctuations of Iranian politics. Exorbitant oil prices in the Seventies funded the luxury and corruption that disgusted the Shah's opponents. High oil prices in the Eighties allowed Iran to export its revolution through terrorism, and to wage war against Iraq. The aftermath of the war and the collapse of oil prices in the Nineties have brought Iran to her knees. People are fed up with bread queues and sermons; they want more comfort, and a more secular state. The victory of moderates and women in recent elections shows that Iran sees opposition to the West is neither feasible nor desirable.

With oil prices of $10 a barrel (in real terms, the same as before 1973), the West can now reappraise its relations with Iran and the whole of the Middle East. It is hypocrisy to divide the region into "bad", terrorist states (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya), and "good", capitalist ones. There's no ethical reason for us to ignore Saudi Arabia's oppression of its Shia minority while we criticise Syria's abuses of human rights. The reactionary, undemocratic monarchies may not be able to afford their pro-Western stance as, with oil prices low, their people's standard of living falls.

This moment also marks an opportunity for the West to become more tolerant of Islam. The West's problem is not fundamentalism itself, but violence. Terrorism against tourists in Egypt is a product more of a lack of education and employment in an overpopulated country, than of doctrinal disputes between Muslims. So Mr Khatami's meeting with the Pope symbolises that there need be no clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. Leaders from both civilisations should co-operate to propagate the compassionate values central to both Christianity and Islam.

The West must throw off its fear of a mythical Islamic threat, and its reliance on force to contain it. Security is best guaranteed by promoting human rights, democracy and economic development. In any case, in an age of satellite television, the mullahs' return to the Middle Ages is doomed from the start. Welcome back, realpolitik.