Tehran takes a moral view of 'terrorism'

Iran's Foreign Minister tells Robert Fisk who are victims and who the aggressors
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WOULD Dr Velayati like an invitation to President Clinton's forthcoming "anti-terrorist" conference along with Messrs Yeltsin, Peres, Mubarak and Arafat, I asked him yesterday? Iran's Foreign Minister, all dark suit and dark beard, looked at me through dark spectacles. He had just spent half an hour with Mr Yeltsin in Moscow and he was not going to fall for this one.

"We are ready to co-operate in the international arena with international organisations to fight against terrorism," he replied. "This means that the UN must be involved, since it is an organisation responsible for the peace and security of the world. If they arrange [a conference] to fight against terrorism, every country that is a UN member should participate actively." Which was one way of saying that he had no wish to go to the Sharm-el-Sheikh summit.

But it was a self-confident Dr Velayati who appeared before a press conference in Tehran yesterday to launch Iran's diplomatic counter-offensive against American and Israeli claims that Iran lies behind the Hamas suicide bombings in Israel and other "terrorist" acts. Wednesday's Israeli-American-Arab summit, he said, would provide neither solutions nor answers to the region's problems.

"What happened in Israel and in the occupied territories is based on the present and past problems of Israel. Israel and the United States are trying to divert attention away from the internal problems that the Israeli regime is facing, so they tried to use Iran as the scapegoat for their failures in the occupied territories and Palestine."

The Foreign Minister's argument was a familiar one: that Iran - whose Prime Minister, Justice Minister and parliamentary deputies have all been slaughtered by "terrorists" - had been "the worst victim of terrorism in the area". These "terrorists" - he was referring to the Mujahedin al- Khalq who have members in London, Paris and other European cities - were enemies of Iran, he said. And some Western countries appeared to support them. Yes, Iran was against "terrorism". Then came the denials.

"We categorically deny any kind of contribution to any kind of terrorist activity anywhere... We are strongly supporting the Palestinian cause. The Palestinians have lost their territories. We are supporting the rights of the Palestinians. The people who struggle for Palestinian rights are respected. But this doesn't mean that Iran, financially, militarily or physically, supports them. Morally we have supported the Palestinian cause..."

There was one inevitable question about Salman Rushdie but no reference to Iran's enemies murdered in Europe by Iranian hit squads - the Shah's last prime minister came to mind - and no response to a question about Iranian funding for Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, no doubt because Iran does indeed give financial support to Hizbollah. But much of Dr Velayati's conference was given over to his recent trip to the Caucasus and Moscow.

It was a demonstration of Iran's priorities. America and Israel may be accusing Iran of "terrorism" but Iran had far more important tasks in hand than responding to such "slanders": securing a new four-month ceasefire in Tajikistan, for example, and urging Armenians and Azeris to settle their differences over Nagorny Karabakh peacefully.

Throughout last week, Iranian officials demanded proof to support the American-Israeli claims against Iran, praising the British government's refusal to join Washington's policy of isolation against the Islamic Republic, as well as Germany's refusal to condemn Iran until Israel produced evidence of Iranian involvement in the Hamas bombings.

But Iran's response has been comparatively muted, partly because it regards President Bill Clinton's desire to isolate Iran as a domestic election ploy, partly because it sees next Wednesday's summit as further proof of the collapse of the American-Israeli "peace process". And, oddly enough, Tehran's diplomatic corps seem to have little argument with this thesis.