7 January  2002

Anglo-iran diplomacy falters

Adel Darwish reports on the latest diplomatic brouhaha between London and Tehran.

Poor President Mohammed Khatami, whenever he steps forward on the road of improving relations with the rest of the world, he discovers that the elastic attached to his cloak and held by the hardline Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is painfully short as, once again, his back is slammed against the wall.
By the end of last year, Iran’s image began to receive the first light touches of a makeover in the western — especially American — press, after President Khatami took the wise step of condemning the 11 September terror attacks and opening his borders for refugees from Afghanistan, as well as quietly doing his bit in helping defeat the universally loathed Taliban regime. A few days later, the Islamic hardliners generated a diplomatic stand-off with Britain, that can only harm Iran and wipe out the modest, but significant, gains President Khatami has worked hard to achieve in the past three years.
Even though the British Foreign Office — which, in contrast to the loud and brash US State Department, prefers to take the line of unobtrusive but, hopefully, effective diplomacy — had been trying for three months to wrap the diplomatic row with Tehran in a cloak of secrecy, the hardliners chose to blow it up in the first week of January.

''Many Iranian analysts, including former and serving diplomats, see him as the best man for the job''

An article published on 7 January in the Farsi-language daily newspaper Jomhuri Islami, the mouth-piece of the anti-Khatami hardline Islamic clergy, followed by several editorials in Kyhan and other anti-Khatami publications, threatened to undo Britain’s three years efforts to improve relations with Iran.
The article said the Iranian government had refused to accept the appointment of David Reddaway, an expert on the region who served in Tehran as charge d’affaires Iran for three years during the early 1990s. The hardliners gave vent to their objections in the Iranian press they control, claiming the British diplomat is of Jewish origin and — without offering any supporting evidence — alleging he is also an MI6 agent.
As the Foreign Office has been at pains to play down the affair, a spokesman, as expected, declined to comment on Mr Reddaway’s religious background, pointing out that such appointments “are based on merit and not religion”. Another British official said there was no basis for the MI6 claim.
As soon as the British press ran the story, the Foreign Office, while publicly refusing to make any meaningful comment, arranged a flood of leaks indicating they would not give way to Iranian pressure. Although not commenting publicly, Foreign Office sources confirmed Mr Reddaway, a Farsi speaker and specialist on Iran, who won the admiration of President Khatami and Iranian foreign Secretary Kamal Kharazi, was proposed last autumn as Britain’s envoy to Tehran, to fill the empty post vacated by Nicholas Browne. Browne returned to London in early December before retiring from the diplomatic service. 
According to London based Iranian affairs specialist, Dr Ali Nouri-Zadeh, both Mr Kaharzi and President Khatami were delighted with Mr Reddaway’s appointment when they discussed the matter with ambassador Browne in October.
A high ranking Foreign Office official told the Middle East that Mr Reddaway “is still the one and only choice for the job,”. Rumours he might be considered unsuitable for the post because he is married to an Iranian were dismissed.

''Reddaway returned to Iran as a charge d’affairs''

Forty-eight year old Reddaway is a highflyer career diplomat who has spent some 25 years in the diplomatic service in Iran, Argentina, India and Europe.
Many Iranian analysts, including former and serving diplomats, see him as the best man for the job having held two diplomatic posts in Iran. He also speaks, reads and writes perfect Farsi.
During the late Shah’s rule, he was an official in the commercial section of the British embassy, later becoming a first political secretary, shortly before the Rise to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Events at the time led to the severing of diplomatic relations between the two nations. Reddaway then returned to Iran as a charge d’affairs in the British interest section of the Swedish Embassy between 1990 and 1993.

''The Iranians could try to use Mr Reddaway's appointment as a way of winning concessions on other issues''

``The same Islamic authorities had no objection to Mr Reddaway serving as charge d'affaires in Teheran from 1990 to 1993,'' pointed out an Iranian diplomat who prefered to remain anonymous,  `` but now they are trying to embarrass President Khatami and freeze his attempts to improve relations with Britain and the west in general.``

Some former British diplomats who served in Iran , and now act as advisers  to the Foreign Office speculated that the Iranians were simply trying to use Mr Reddaway appointment as a way of winning concessions on other issues. "The Iranians are always playing these games," one source said. "The important thing is to stand firm and not give in." 

The reformist camp, who support President Khatami, is suspicious of the hardliners motives, saying that  Mr Reddaway's extensive knowledge of Iran, could be the real reason that Teheran wants to keep him out. 

Dr Nouri-Zadeh, who subscribes to this theory, adds that Mr Reddaway appointment and his expected close cooperation with the reformists, would have strengthened the president position, especially if, as  the radicals suspect, Mrs. Reddaway became active in the fields of humanrights and womens rights.

Mr Reddaway is married to an educated and articulate Iranian woman, who was born to an American mother and an Iranian upper class father who comes from one of Iran's influential families. His mother-in-law, still lives in Iran and breeds and exports racehorses, thereby earning the Islamic Republic good income in hard-currency. His brother, who also speaks Farsi, is a photographer working with a news agency in Teheran. The thought that such qualifications and connections might make Mr Reddaway an ambassador too knowledgeable of Iran for comfort, is what worries the hardliners.

The right wing, lead by Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, see most world events, including the appointment of a new British ambassador, through a lense of conspiracy.

Tension btweent Britain and Iran is nothing new

Only last December Ayatollah Khamenei accused the West of conspiring  to return the monarchy to Iran. The chrages were made following publication of several interviews with the late Shah's son, who had just published a new book.  They consider Mr Reddaway's appointment as another step towards strengthening the hands of the royalists in Iran, since he served in the embassy during the late Shah's rule.

The row was given prominent coverage in Israel, which regards the Islamic Republic as a sworn enemy. 
Israel sees the row as  reinforcing its accusation of Iran and other  Islamic governments of behaving in an overtly racist fashion and harbouring deep anti-semitic feelings.

Israeli press reports suggest  that London will be forced re-examine its relationship with Teheran and could  downgrade ties if the Islamic government refuses to acknowledge Mr Reddaway. 

Israel has made no secret of its disapproval of Britain's overtures to a nation that it sees as an arch enemy, and  will be watching the Foreign Office's handling of the affair closely. It is also no secret that Israeli government lead by hardliner Ariel Sharon, is actively leaking interesting bits of information about the London Teheran diplomatic dispute to the Israeli press at a time when Mr Sharon, is trying to attract the world's attention to its seizure of an arms shipment, allegedly from Iran, which it claims was ordered by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

The publication of the news of the row came out on the day the Israelis put the Palestinian captain before journalists admitting that a senior Palestinian official in Athens instructed him to sail on his mission.

The Israeli dimension, makes the British Foreign Office even more adamant to stand firm on Mr Reddaway appointment and not to fulfill the Israeli speculations.

Tension between Britain and Iran is nothing new as the ties between the two nations have been historically tense. Since  finding oil in Iran nearly 100 years ago and exploiting it for decades, Britain bequeathed a legacy of mistrust, which culminated in British intelligence and CIA helping the late Shah reclaiming his throne in 1953, following nationalist's Prime Minister Mohammed Musadaq nationalisation of the oil companies. Both nationalists and Islamists still dust off this affair every time  they want to inflame a popular anti-western sentiment. However, relations have improved markedly since President Khatami's moderate Government officially distanced itself three years ago from the late Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie. 

President Khatami had hoped to improve relations with the United States

The September 11 attacks on America,  presented a new opportunity to move closer together. A fortnight after the terror attacks in America, Jack Straw became the first British Foreign Secretary to visit Teheran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. He made a second visit in November, when negotiations were being held over the new interim government to replace the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

By improving relations with Britain, and gaining Prime Minister's Tony Blair's trust and cooperation, President Khatami had hoped to improve relations with the United States, which still places Iran on its list of states supporting terrorism. By aggravating  the  diplomatic row with Britain, the hardliners will add many long miles to President Khatami's journey of improving his nation's relations with Washington.

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