US seeks support to isolate Tehran

JOHN LICHFIELD

Is Iran behind the Hamas suicide attacks on Israel? The United States is saying that it may be, without offering firm evidence. Other Western governments are far from convinced. They are, however, supporting Washington in its strident criticism of Tehran to head off the possibility of a collision over US attempts to organise draconian international sanctions against Iran.

The British Government yesterday summoned the senior Iranian diplomat in London to the Foreign Office to hear a lecture about Iranian "support for terrorism" and Tehran's "highly distasteful" remarks welcoming the suicide bombings in Israel which have killed 75 people in the last 10 days.

British officials said there was no difference in general approach between the Clinton administration and European Union governments in their condemnation of Iran's opposition to the Middle East peace process and its - at the very least - rhetorical support for acts of violence against civilians. But an official said there was no direct evidence so far that the recent suicide bombings by the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas had been sponsored by Iran.

The US is pushing for international moves to isolate Iran diplomatically and economically but European governments are unwilling to go that far. "If, and it's a big if, America or anyone else can show that there is a direct Iranian hand in the attacks inside Israel, we will have to completely reconsider our approach," one European official said.

EU governments are consulting on the wording of a possible joint statement criticising Iran's virulent opposition to the Middle East peace process and its public exultation in the suicide attacks. The statement may be endorsed by European foreign ministers when they meet informally in Palermo, Italy, today and tomorrow. The intention is to warn off Tehran - and mollify the US - by extending the chorus of criticism to those European governments - Germany, Italy and Greece - which enjoy relatively good relations with Iran.

France yesterday called off a planned visit by Iran's deputy Foreign Minister, Mahmoud Vaezi. The French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, is to fly to Israel and the Palestinian territories in express support for continued peace efforts.

The US is calling for international efforts to isolate Iran, including trade sanctions. All American trade with, and investment in, Iran is already banned. One piece of legislation before the US Congress would impose US sanctions on foreign companies which continued to trade with Iran, raising the possibility of a serious collision with the EU and other American allies. The Washington campaign to convert the rest of the world to Iranian sanctions - driven in part by political imperatives in an election year - began long before the present suicide bombing offensive by Hamas.

The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, suggested yesterday that continued trade with Iran would amount to support for terrorism. "We think Iran is deeply involved in [the Hamas bombings] at various levels - encouragement, funding, perhaps some direction... It is a good lesson - ought to be - for the world as to why we've been so strongly opposed to Iran and... to those who would give Iran the kind of financial support they can divert into terrorist activities of this kind."

Middle East analysts do not dispute that Iran gives at least political support to Hamas and other so-called "rejectionist" groups. But they say there is no evidence of direct involvement in planning a campaign of violence inside Israel. The analysts say that Iran channels most of its direct assistance in the region to the Hizbollah militia in Southern Lebanon and has recently reduced even this. Relations between Hamas (a Sunni Muslim organisation) and Shia-dominated Iran are not thought to be close.

On the other hand, two senior Iranian officials, including Hussein Shaikholeslam, deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs, attended a meeting in Damascus last week with Palestinian and Lebanese groups in the "Peace Rejection Front", including officials of Hamas. The Iranian officials were said to have promised all the groups Tehran's "full support and with all means at its disposal".

The meeting took place in Syria with the government's approval . This raises the question of why the US is singling out Iran, when there is at least as much circumstantial evidence of Syrian support for Hamas.

Tehran yesterday dismissed claims that it was involved in the suicide bombings.

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