Blair and Straw at odds over US action in Iran

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Indy Politics

Jack Straw has warned Cabinet colleagues that it would be illegal for Britain to support the United States in military action against Iran. But Tony Blair has backed President George Bush by warning that ruling out military action would send out a "message of weakness" to Iran.

Differences opened up yesterday between Mr Blair and the Foreign Secretary over growing alarm in the US at the refusal of Mr Bush to rule out military action. Mr Straw said on BBC Radio 4 that it was "inconceivable" that Britain would support a military strike against Tehran. Four hours later, Mr Blair refused to go that far when challenged to do so at Prime Minister's questions by the former minister, Michael Meacher.

Mr Blair accused Iran of fostering international terrorism, and said young people were signing up to be suicide bombers directed at US and UK targets. "I do not think this is the time to send a message of weakness," he said.

Mr Straw has told ministerial colleagues he does not believe that the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, would approve the legality of British action, because Iran does not pose a direct threat to Britain. Mr Straw also said it would be "nuts" to consider a nuclear strike.

The possibility of action against Iran threatens to resurrect the row over the basis on which Britain went to war in Iraq. The Attorney General became embroiled in the legal advice he gave to the Prime Minister over the war.

Clare Short, the former cabinet minister, said the Cabinet had never been shown the full legal advice and there were claims that Lord Goldsmith may have changed his view under pressure from Mr Blair.

Some Labour MPs say Mr Straw was wrong to rule out military action, and accuse him of bowing to pressure from the strong Muslim population in his Blackburn constituency.

But most Labour MPs support Mr Straw's strategy and would revolt if Mr Blair showed any sign of lending support to a US strike against Iran. Mr Straw was given tacit support at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Luxembourg last week.

France understands Mr Blair's argument that keeping the military option on the table would keep up the pressure on Iran. But it is to urge London to press the Bush administration to soften its approach so it no longer treats Iran as a "rogue state" but engages in a wider dialogue with Tehran on terrorism, the Middle East peace process and oil.

Yesterday there was a rare, informal meeting of US and Iranian embassy diplomats at the Commons organised by the Foreign Policy Centre think-tank to launch its pamphlet Understanding Iran.

Diplomatic contacts between Iran and the US have been infrequent since students occupied the US embassy in Tehran 26 years ago. Pam Telford, who handles proliferation issues for the US embassy, denied Washington had aggravated the problem by having no clear policy towards Iran, or by having double standards about which Asian states are allowed to have nuclear weapons.

The Iranian charge d'affaires, Hamid Reza Arefi, denied Iran intended to develop nuclear weapons.

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