Straw will visit Tehran to forge unlikely alliance

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The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, announced yesterday that he will travel to Iran next week for the first visit to the Islamic republic by a British foreign minister in more than two decades.

Mr Straw's visit is part of efforts led by the United States to bind together an anti-Taliban coalition in the wake of the attacks, and follows a "remarkable" telephone conversation between Tony Blair and the reformist President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, on Thursday.

Mr Blair said the Iranian leader not only condemned terrorism and offered support over the attacks, but expressed the wish to "rebuild the relationship between our two countries as well".

"It's important to build alliances with every country that we can," Mr Straw said yesterday as he prepared for his ground-breaking meeting next week. Britain – which shares the US conviction that the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden who is sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan, is responsible for the attacks – strongly supports a US-led military response.

Iran, which is still on the US government list of states supporting terrorism, is sheltering 1.5 million refugees who have fled the civil war in Afghanistan. Tehran is bitterly opposed to the Taliban regime, which has massacred the minority Shi'ite Hazara community – which Iran tried to protect – and slaughtered Iranian diplomats captured by the Taliban militia.

Iran yesterday joined a UN-brokered meeting in Geneva to discuss Afghanistan that is being attended by representatives of the United States, Germany and Italy.

Iran is the main financial backer of the Northern Alliance, the opposition grouping in Afghanistan that was led by Ahmad Shah Masood until his assassination earlier in the month. "The Iranians supply most of the money and the Russians the arms and ammunition," said an Iranian, who did not want his name published, in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, yesterday.

Although the US and Britain have been encouraged by Iran's reaction to the attacks, Mr Straw will have to tread carefully. While condemning the attacks on America, Iran has made clear it will not allow its airspace to be used for any attacks on Afghanistan, and has called for any action to be directed through the UN.

But while the reformist leadership has signalled diplomatically that it would not oppose US airstrikes, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned this week that Iran "condemns a possible attack on Afghanistan, which could lead to another human catastrophe".

Britain and Iran were estranged for 14 years over The Satanic Verses, whose author, Salman Rushdie, became the target of a religious death threat for alleged blasphemy against Islam. The fatwa was only lifted in 1998.

The Iranians, possibly to their own surprise, may now reap the benefit of their long support for the Northern Alliance – though they are also worried by the prospect of a fresh surge of Afghan refugees across their 560-mile long common border with Afghanistan.

In many ways Iran's position is similar to that of Syria in 1990, which, for its own reasons, had long hated Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein.

When the Iraqi leader invaded Kuwait, the Syrians, long denounced as terrorists in Washington, suddenly joined the US-led alliance on the grounds that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".

Iran, too, may be able to use the present crisis to escape the diplomatic isolation imposed on it by the US since the overthrow of the Shah.