Tehran seeks arms talks with Israel

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IRAN IS interested in opening a dialogue with Israel on arms control in the Middle East and has asked senior British Government figures to act as intermediaries, according to Israeli press reports.

The Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, has told British representatives in Tehran that he wants to break the present circle of distrust and suspicion between Iran and the Jewish state, the Israeli daily Haaretz said yesterday. As a confidence-building measure he proposed two agreements on disarmament. Under the first, Middle Eastern powers possessing ground-to-ground missiles would agree not to use them in a pre-emptive strike.

President Khatami also suggested a bilateral agreement with Israel on the disarmament of long-range missiles with non-conventional warheads. This would be followed by an agreement to ban the development of long- range missiles for military purposes. Instead they would be used solely to launch missiles into space.

The Foreign Office strongly denied yesterday that Britain had taken any role in relaying Iranian proposals to Israel or had any knowledge of them.

Iran might have an interest in making such proposals since Israel possesses long-range missiles, an arsenal of nuclear warheads and has repeatedlyrefused to sign non-proliferation treaties. Iran is only now, with Russian assistance, developing a missile capable of reaching Israeli targets. In recent years Israel has lobbied the US to put pressure on Moscow not to help Iran develop any long-range missiles.

The Iranians reportedly told British representatives that its missile development programme was directed primarily against a possible threat of attack by Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan and not against Israel. Tehran and other Iranian cities were repeatedly hit by long-range Iraqi missiles in 1988, the last year of the Iran-Iraq war. If the war had not ended, Iraq planned to place poison-gas warheads on missiles launched against Tehran. The Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, had earlier used mustard gas and nerve gas against Iranian troops.

Tehran's proposals could be an attempt to reassure the West about Iranian intentions in the Middle East and pre-empt criticism of its missile development programme. It would, however, be difficult for President Khatami or any Iranian leader to sign a formal agreement with Israel, having denounced other Middle Eastern countries for doing so.

Relations between Israel and Iran have deteriorated sharply over the last month as Iran prepares to put on trial 13 Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan accused of spying for Israel and the United States. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a senior Iranian cleric, said on Friday that the Jews should be hanged if they were convicted. He said if Iran were to show leniency "it would have to abandon the country and its secrets to foreign powers".

The arrest of the IranianJews is seen in Israel as part of the struggle between the moderate President Khatami and his hard-line opponents.