Mission to Tehran

Mission to Tehran

Mission to Tehran

What the foreign papers are saying.
Sept. 27 2001 9:00 PM

Mission to Tehran

Jack Straw's diplomatic mission to Iran—the first visit by a British foreign minister since the Islamic revolution—flopped when Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected his overtures. The country doesn't consider the United States "competent and sincere [enough] to lead any global campaign against terrorism," Khamenei said. The next stop on his itinerary, Israel, proved a botch for Straw when his hosts got a gander at an article he wrote for an Iranian newspaper. According to Britain's Guardian, the foreign minister offended Israel three ways: "The first was to refer to the 25,000 Muslims and 23 mosques in his Blackburn constituency. He also referred in the piece to 'Palestine.' As far as the Israeli government is concerned, there is no such place: the question of statehood is still under negotiation. Third, and most damning of all in Israeli eyes, Mr Straw wrote that he understood 'one of the factors which helps breed terrorism is the anger which many people in this region feel at events over the years in Palestine.' " (In fact, Israeli papers didn't seem offended by Straw's mention of the mosques of Blackburn, though they inferred that, since Muslims comprise 15 percent of his constituency, he has a pro-Muslim bias.) In protest, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav both canceled scheduled meetings with Straw, though Sharon later relented after a phone call from Tony Blair.

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The Guardian declared that "it was fundamentally a mistake to include Iran and Israel on the same trip" (Straw's visit to Iran was originally scheduled for November), that Sharon was trying to deflect attention from the Palestinian conflict, and that much of Israel's indignation was "tactical rather than genuine." The Independent said it understood Israelis' dismay "as they see Mr Straw hurrying to Iran, a country which has never concealed its desire to see their country annihilated," but it warned, "The Americans may be very close to Israel, but Mr Sharon will be making a mistake of historic dimensions if he forces them to choose between maintaining their alliance with Israel and winning the wider war against terror." Another Independent editorial (published before Tehran spurned Straw) supported the attempted seduction of Iran—"a vast market crying out for British investment"—concluding, "Iran is not simply a large, powerful nation. It could yet turn out to be one of the few relatively stable states in a region destined to be visited with great political turmoil over the coming months."

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

The Israeli papers were apoplectic. A Ha'aretz analysis said Israelis were worried that "the international war on terror would ignore local threats and leaveIsraelto fight Palestinian and Lebanese extremists by itself. These concerns were reinforced when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was quoted as saying that Palestinian terrorism was a legitimate battle, or at least an understandable one." An editorial in the Jerusalem Post typified the tone of resentment:

One would have expected that, as the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel would enjoy a far greater degree of friendship and support from the British Foreign Office. Unfortunately, as the Straw affair makes clear, that is far from being the case. For even as Britain is actively coddling the dictatorial regime in Teheran, it sees nothing wrong with lambasting the free and democratic Jewish state.

In recent days, even papers that support the formation of a broad-based international coalition to fight terrorism have voiced concerns. The Times of London said, "What will be required is not a coalition but a palimpsest, a political, military and intelligence-sharing script that is constantly rewritten." Toronto's Globe and Mail was disappointed that Washington has lifted some of its sanctions against Islamabad and is considering removing more, even though Pakistan is "a military dictatorship with nuclear weapons and a deplorable human-rights record" that supports terrorism in the Indian border state of Kashmir. The editorial concluded:

In the longer haul, the United States should urge Pakistan and other allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to put aside their autocratic ways and take the path of democratic reform. If Islamic militancy thrives, it is partly because opponents of regimes like these have few other legitimate outlets. If Islamic terrorism is to be defeated, that must change.

Iranafter the revolution: The Guardian presented a fascinating "then and now" comparison between Iran in 1976 and 2001. In 1976, the average monthly income was $100; the unemployment rate was 2.9 percent; and 52 percent of the 34 million population was illiterate. The country had seven newspapers and Tehran hosted 1,800 mosques. In 2001, the average income is $60.50 per month; unemployment is 12.5 percent; and 17 percent of the 64 million population is illiterate. There are 48 newspapers (down from a pre-crackdown 87) and Tehran has 2,300 mosques. "Mention Iran in 1976 and people in the west would have thought of oil, Persian carpets and cats. … Mention Iran now and people think of ayatollahs and art house films."