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UN Population Conference: Iran surprises the West with liberal line on birth control

THE IRANIAN Deputy Minister of Health looked rather pleased with himself yesterday as he sat outside the Chephren hall at the Cairo population conference - as well he might. Rare it must be that Hossein Malekafzali finds himself on the side of the gods. 'All this proves that debate and compromise can produce results,' he said. 'It was just a matter of patience.'

The Americans were even more jubilant. At a private State Department party in Cairo glasses were raised to Iran's conference delegation which - far from allying itself with the Vatican's dogmatic condemnation of family planning and abortion - turned out to be among the most pragmatic and persuasive nations to attend the UN meeting. It made a curious contrast to the West's usual response to all things Iranian.

Mohamed Ali Taskhiri, leader of the Iranian delegation, had earlier praised the 'strong points' in the conference's 100- page 20-year 'programme of action', arguing that Iran supported the 'empowerment of women, socially and politically'. The Iranian-Vatican alliance - touted by the Holy See and by domestic opponents of Iran's President, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani - had turned out to be an illusion.

As Mr Malekafzali pointed out yesterday the Iranian delegation met Vatican officials for the first time only the day before the conference opened, and Iran is a firm supporter of family planning. 'We believe in family planning and 50 per cent of Iranian women use it,' he said. 'Twenty per cent of Iranian married couples use the pill, 8 per cent the condom, 10 per cent the inter- uterine device, 12 per cent sterilisation. We have laws on abortion - if there is an unwanted pregnancy, the mother can go to a committee of doctors who, if the life of the mother is at risk, will approve of abortion. No, we've had no contact with the United States delegation - except where we have spoken in the open discussions.'

Mr Malekafzali, a representative of President Rafsanjani's moderate leadership smiled when he saw an opportunity to draw a lesson from the conference. 'From the first day, Iran and the Western nations were very far from each other,' he said. 'Because of discussion and patience, we were able to resolve things in a way that was acceptable to all of us. It shows that if we talk to each other, we can be closer.' There was a message there, no doubt, for Washington.