Defiant Iran stays away

ROBERT FISK

Tehran

Hours before the Israeli prime minister rose to denounce Tehran as the "capital of terror", I was walking down a rainy street in that same Iranian city with a man who once took up arms to fight Iranian opponents of the revolutionary regime.

"Peres will call Iran a terrorist state, Clinton will applaud him but the others won't join in," he said. "The Israelis don't know what to do when they can't use their tanks and planes." By midday yesterday, the first part of the man's prediction was proved correct.

Iran predictably called the Sharm el-Sheikh conference a "propaganda ploy by Israel and America to distract the world" - a view shared by several Arab regimes who are no friends of Iran - while the Iran News called for a "anti-terrorist" conference to be held in Tehran.

"The United States . . . alleged that the Islamic republic was behind a series of bomb blasts," its editorial declared. "The same America rolled out the red carpet for the reception of Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA which publicly claimed responsibility for the massacres of many innocent civilians."

In Tehran, the Russian ambassador, Sergei Tretyakov, confirmed that President Yeltsin had sent a letter to President Rafsanjani proposing "joint efforts in the fight against terrorism". Mr Tretyakov chose his words carefully. "When we talk about Iranian involvement in acts of political violence, we should say `so-called' or `alleged'," he said. "We discussed this in Moscow with the Americans. But still no one has provided evidence."

When "terrorist acts" were committed in Israel, the ambassador said, "Iran was immediately accused . . . When hostage-taking took place in Russia, no wide-scale campaign took place as it did for Israel."

Mr Tretyakov's reference to Chechnya might not go down too well in Iran where there are strong feelings about Moscow's suppression of what is seen as a Muslim war of liberation.

Yet Iran can hardly show the world a squeaky-clean record. At a press conference on Monday, Ayatollah Rafsanjani - as he now is - tried to avoid reference to an Iranian sentenced in a French court to 10 years jail for the murder of the former Iranian prime minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, in Paris.

Nor can Iran be surprised when the world does not know who to believe in Tehran. Immediately after the suicide bombings in Israel, for example, the Iranian news agency Irna called the slaughter "divine retribution"; less than 48 hours later European diplomats were summoned to the foreign ministry to be told that the report did not represent the policy of the Rafsanjani government which condemned all acts of violence against civilians.

And if Iranian authorities abandoned their war against the regime's opponents three years ago, there are ominous signs that those who choose to call for a separation of clerical and governmental power cannot do so freely. One proponent of such a policy was lecturing at Tehran University's department of sociology last Saturday when a group of young radicals led by clerics closed down the class.

"You must understand that power remains fragmented here," a Tehran University politics student complained. "Rafsanjani is the president of Iran but he is also the president of only a powerful faction. Still, the radicals are losing and the clerics who used to demand war with Israel are isolated.

"It's confusing, but we find the West confusing too. A few years ago, Israel was calling Beirut the "capital of world terror" because Arafat was there. Now Israel says Tehran is the capital of world terror - and Arafat is sitting next to the Israeli prime minister when he says it."

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