UK holds out for Iran links

Britain will today urge its European partners to reject American calls to sever diplomatic links with Iran over the latest Middle East violence, risking a US-European diplomatic rift.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, will warn EU foreign ministers, meeting in Palermo, against the risks of isolating Iran. A prime concern for Britain is the need to maintain ties with Tehran to pursue efforts to lift the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. While expressing concern over evidence that Tehran may be supporting Hamas, the group which perpetrated the latest bloodshed, Mr Rifkind will say there is no evidence of its direct financial or military support.

Refusal by the EU to end so-called "critical dialogue", a low-level form of diplomatic contact established between the EU and Iran, launched in 1992, would anger Washington, which is determined to find some new response to Islamic militancy, and support Israel. The Israelis have long argued that Hamas is nurtured by Iran. Hamas leaders do not dispute their political allegiance to Iran but clear evidence that the movement is directly financed or armed by Iran has been hard to come by.

Critical dialogue is the only communication available to Britain to put diplomatic pressure on Iran to lift the death threat against Mr Rushdie. The fatwa, issued in 1989 after the publication of The Satanic Verses, provoked Britain to cut diplomatic ties with Iran.

However, at the Edinburgh summit in 1992, it persuaded its EU partners to launch critical dialogue, which involves contacts between EU diplomats and Iranian officials in Tehran, dialogue, and occasional higher-level contacts.

Although the discussions have not brought real progress on the Rushdie question, the Foreign Office continues to argue that dialogue is a better course than isolation.