Mutual mistrust sours Britain's links with Iran

OTHER countries have worse relations with Iran than Britain. Neither the United States nor Israel has diplomatic ties with the Islamic republic, and Iraq has a conflict with it going back 1300 years. But British diplomats know that a Tehran posting might be as abruptly terminated as one in Moscow in the bad old days.

The Salman Rushdie affair merely exposed the cultural divide between a state posited on the export of revolutionary Islam - committed to imposing Islamic law on Muslims beyond its boundaries - and a world where individuals are largely but with some exceptions (blasphemy against Jesus Christ for example) allowed to speak their minds.

The Rushdie affair still rankles, and other issues have arisen between the two countries which have not been settled amicably through diplomatic channels. For Britain, though less stridently than the US, still accuses Iran of sponsoring international terrorism and killing Iranian dissidents abroad.

The history of modern Iran may account in some way for the deep suspicion the Iranians have about British designs. Since the Islamic revolution, relations have been especially poor. After the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa or religious ruling on Salman Rushdie was handed down in 1989, Britain accused Iran of incitement to murder and withdrew its ambassador from Tehran. It also persuaded other Western countries to do likewise.

Relations were broken off then restored the following year. Then this year new charges and counter-charges were levelled. On 28 April Britain accused Iranian intelligence agents of contacts with the IRA. Iran responded by accusing Britain of planting a listening device in its newly refurbished embassy building in London.

Iran has shown little desire to curry favour with the West. Five years after the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's policy makers seem to have calculated that the desire of the industrialised countries to find export markets, particularly in a time of world recession, outweighs their distaste for propping up a regime which many of them would rather not deal with.

In a separate development yesterday, Iran said it had arrested two high-ranking Iraqi intelligence officers sent to organise sabotage in the country. Tehran Radio said the Iranian Intelligence Minister, Ali Fallahiyan, announced the arrests, along with that of four Iranians who helped the Iraqis, at a news conference.

Mr Fallahiyan said that over the past four months, Iraq had sent sabotage groups to plant bombs in Iran. He named the Iraqi intelligence officers as Raad Mustafa Fattah and Arkan Abdul-Amir Ali. He said they 'have confessed to their mission and particularly to bringing explosives into Iran'.

'Four Iranians who have been co-operating with the Iraqi intelligence officers have been arrested and have confessed that they were involved in intelligence work,' he added.

The minister said Iraq had smuggled 22 bombs into Iran over the past four months, of which 14 were discovered before they exploded. He said the bombing campaign was an attempt by Baghdad to give the impression that Iran was unstable.

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