Leading Article: Mirror image of mutual mistrust

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NUANCED negatives prevail in current assessments of relations between Iran and this country, following last week's tit-for-tat expulsion of one diplomat each from London and Tehran. 'We will not benefit from cutting ties,' Iran's President Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told foreign journalists yesterday in the Iranian capital. In Whitehall his remarks were regarded as 'not unhelpful'.

Clearly Anglo-Iranian relations are bad - though not as appalling as in the aftermath of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa concerning the writer Salman Rushdie. Compared with that, Britain's recent claims of contacts between Iranian agents and the IRA, and last week's expulsion of an Iranian diplomat for distributing forged documents about Britain's Bosnian policy, look less deeply damaging. Iran responded by claiming that its London embassy had been bugged - and told the number two at the British mission in Tehran to leave.

These episodes reflect a deep mutual suspicion rooted in history. Earlier this century the British used all their powers of influence on Iran's rulers to protect the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP). With the Americans and some Iranian officers, they even deposed the leading advocate of nationalisation of the oil industry, Prime Minister Dr Mohammad Mossadeq and restored the Shah. Yet although exiled Islamic activists regarded the Shah as a tool of Western interests, he himself attributed his downfall and Ayatollah Khomeini's triumphant return to those same foreign powers.

The British and Americans, for their part, have continued to regard Iran's Islamic revolution as a seedbed of terrorism and fundamentalist interference ranging from Egypt and Lebanon to Algeria. That, too, is unduly paranoid. Islamic militancy originated in Egypt and Pakistan. Some observers even believe Iran could lead an Islamic reformation, the ayatollahs having amply demonstrated how ill-equipped an Islamic state is to cope with the economic and social problems of the late 20th century. To judge by Mr Rafsanjani's remarks, that change is not imminent.