Diplomacy and history collide in the 'other' Oval Office

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There are, it turns out, two oval offices in which national presidents receive their visitors. To the one in the White House add the one in the Red Building, in the heart of another presidential complex, with its exquisitely floral patterned grey Persian carpet, its heavy glinting chandelier, and its soft blue lighting hidden behind the elliptical ceiling cornice.

There are, it turns out, two oval offices in which national presidents receive their visitors. To the one in the White House add the one in the Red Building, in the heart of another presidential complex, with its exquisitely floral patterned grey Persian carpet, its heavy glinting chandelier, and its soft blue lighting hidden behind the elliptical ceiling cornice.

The one certainty about the two offices was that it would be a long time, if not an eternity, before the occupant of either visited the other.

But after the events of 11 September that no longer seems as utterly axiomatic as it has been for all the 22 years since Iranian revolutionary guards stormed the United States embassy building in Tehran – shortly to be reopened for a "Den of Spies" exhibition which will display some of the top-secret CIA documents they seized at the time.

For yesterday, Jack Straw, representative of the Great Satan's closest ally, penetrated the Red Building in the first visit to Iran by a British foreign secretary since David Owen in the Shah's last years.

In the light of history, Mr Straw's meeting with President Mohammad Khatami is almost as astonishing as a US one would be. In more than two decades, Britain's relations with Iran have been several times reduced to worse than zero: by the US embassy seizure; the long detention on charges of espionage of the businessman Roger Cooper from 1985; the retaliatory detention and beating up of a diplomat, Edward Chaplin, in 1987 after the arrest of an Iranian consular official in Manchester; the protracted incarceration in Lebanon of British hostages by Iranian- backed terrorists; and finally the fatwa on Salman Rushdie in February 1989.

Mr Straw was at pains to point out that Britain has pursued a distinctive line with Iran from the US. But what brought his visit forward was the critical role – at this stage apparently political rather than military – that Britain and the Europeans believe Iran could play in supporting action in Afghanistan.

The potential differences, of course, are very clear – starting with Iran's unabashed support for Hizbollah and other groups seen by Britain as terrorist organisations. No doubt sensibly, Mr Straw did not, apparently, even ask for military help such as overflying facilities for warplanes.

Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's Foreign Minister, declared: "To uproot and eliminate terrorism, we have to have action which is effective. We must avoid any action which can threaten the lives of ordinary defenceless people. A rash and hasty action may solve problems in the short term, [but] in the long run it will create insoluble problems." Nor could recent events be allowed to "distort the moderate image of Islam" or "continue the killings of Palestinians".

But the differences may also be exaggerated. Mr Kharrazi did not rule out action in any form. And while he wants United Nations backing for action, he talked in public of the need for an international consensus of public opinion.

Mr Straw pointed out to him that the British had also been urging "focused" action that could sustain a coalition, and that further UN resolutions to augment that of the week of 11 September could yet be forthcoming. And he also appears to have stressed the importance of the Middle East peace process.

Even on the crucial issue of the Palestinian groups supported by Iran – not to mention the status of Israel itself – Mr Straw and Mr Kharazzi appear to have agreed to differ rather than to pursue the argument at this delicate stage in the coalition-building process. It appears not to have prevented Mr Straw making his as yet enigmatic promise to share confidentially what evidence against Mr bin Laden "that we can" – in return, no doubt, for the information Iran can share on the Taliban.

The body language between Mr Straw and his counterpart, in the meeting off the Foreign Ministry's stunning Hall of Mirrors, was warm.

Mr Straw stressed the need to counter "Islamophobia" and spoke of his 25,000 Muslim constituents in Blackburn worshipping at more than 20 mosques. He apparently amused Mr Kharrazi by telling him that the Iranian minority among them were especially popular with the local girls.

There was also some banter of a sort between Mr Straw and the President when they met later. The latter explained he was rather hoarse while the former explained that he was deaf in one ear. Despite these handicaps – and the vastly more serious obstacles between the two governments – the visit can probably be judged as successful as it could have been, not least as a welcome symbol in the eyes of those in the well-educated Iranian population hungry for reform and modernisation.

This is a country with long experience of terrible war. It happens to be "Sacred Defence Week", and outside the Foreign Ministry there is a video tent where visitors can watch sombre footage commemorating the heroism of the Iranian army in the long and bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s. The last thing Iran wants now is another waste of life in the Middle East as tragic as that was. But it might just tolerate limited action against Mr bin Laden and his Taliban hosts – to whom the Iranians are deeply hostile – if it did not cost innocent lives.

One of the friendly soldiers guarding the Pastor Street entrance to the presidential complex was apologetic about not discussing politics. "We are forbidden to talk about such things," he said. But he knew what had been going on. He would say just five emphatic words: "Straw's visit is very important."

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