Bullish Iran calls for a fresh start with Britain

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Iran's leaders are calling for a new relationship with Britain, at a time when Tehran's international clout has been strengthened by events in Lebanon and Iraq.

"We are now at a new beginning," said Iran's new ambassador to London, Rasoul Movahedian. "The world has been changed, the region has been changed, and it is time for us to think of a new modality of our relationship. There are grounds of common interest for both Iran and Great Britain to work together."

Britain is one of six powers trying to negotiate a solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran. But Mr Movahedian, who took over in the summer from the westernised Mohammed Husain Adeli - sacked in a purge of Iranian ambassadors after the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - said that Iran felt that bilateral relations could benefit more broadly. Tehran's influence in Iraq, now ruled by a Shia-dominated government, and Afghanistan could be helpful, he said. Israel's failure to defeat Iran's proxy militia, Hizbollah, in the 34-day Lebanon war, should stand as a warning to US President George Bush, who has refused to rule out military action against the Islamic Republic to prevent it from producing a nuclear bomb, he said.

"I will not deny that the situation in Lebanon has partly affected the mentality of Western leaders. They have realised that Iran is not in a position where they can impose anything upon it. We are able to defend ourselves, to defend our country," he said.

The US is, meanwhile, facing deepening problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. "They need the support of neighbouring countries". Iran is still smarting, however, from the response to earlier moves to help the Americans keep the lid on these conflicts. As Dr Ali Ansari, an Iranian academic, put it in a lecture at the British think-tank Chatham House last week, former president Mohamed Khatami "was talking about a dialogue of civilisations and was rewarded with the axis of evil," epithet from Mr Bush.

Iran's latest diplomatic overture, on the eve of the UN General Assembly session, does not mean that Tehran has toned down its criticism of the foreign policies of the US and the UK.

Iran is "concerned about the role played by the British Government in the Lebanon war," Mr Movahedian says. "It has damaged [the] reputation of Britain in the Middle East in general." As for Mr Bush: "We know that Americans are a great nation and they deserve a wiser president.

"It is ridiculous to resolve international and regional issues by changing governments. You look at Afghanistan, you look at Iraq - how is the situation now? Is [this] the type of democracy they wanted to present to the people in the region? Today, Iraq is a catastrophe. Afghanistan is the same."

Regime change is a sensitive issue in Iran, where the US and Britain have engineered three coups in the past 100 years.

The Iranian leadership fears that, on the nuclear issue, even if it answers all the questions of the UN nuclear watchdog, new ones would be forthcoming.

The lack of trust is an obstacle to progress. The West refuses to believe Iran's assurances that it has no intention of enriching uranium to bomb-making levels, while Iran accuses the West of failing to live up to its promises in return for an earlier nuclear freeze.

"Iran is already a nuclear state," Mr Movahedian says. "It's up to the Western countries to realise our rights and position, and to deal with it in a mutually beneficial way."

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