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Iran Looks to Europe to Counter US Influence

Relations with Britain, France, the Netherlands said to be thawing, but US ties still frozen

IRAN has launched a major diplomatic drive to break its long international isolation. In the aftermath of the Gulf war, the Islamic republic has restored diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, and Tunisia, and has strengthened existing relations with all the emirates on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf.

Europe is also a focus. Iran is working on gaining a diplomatic opening in the European Community, sources say, and has convinced Britain and the Netherlands to reopen their embassies in Tehran and has strengthened existing ties with all other EC countries.

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French President Francois Mitterrand on May 3 formally invited his Iranian counterpart, Hashemi Rafsanjani, to visit Paris. It is the first announced trip by an Iranian post-revolutionary leader to a major Western country and was described over the weekend by Western diplomats in Tehran as "a diplomatic triumph for Mr. Rafsanjani."

But thus far diplomatic overtures by Iran have not included gestures toward the United States.

"Over the past 10 years Iran and the US have been at odds on almost every international issue," says an enigmatically smiling Iranian diplomat. Asked if there was any prospect of an early improvement in Iran-US relations, he replies:

"Even Kuwait's invasion last year by Iran's arch enemy Iraq didn't allow Washington and Tehran to bridge their disagreements. Meanwhile, it made both capitals realize that they have a problem in common: What to do with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and how to deal with postwar Iraq?

"This may in the longer term force our two countries' leaders to sit and talk to one another," the diplomat says.

The main question, according to Western diplomats here, is whether Iran is at present interested in resuming ties with the US.

A majority of parliamentary deputies led by Ahmad Khomeini, the son of Ayatollah Khomeini, the late guide of the Islamic revolution, still refuse any contact with Washington.

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Mr. Khomeini said April 23 that "resuming relations with America would be against Islamic values." More recently, those radical deputies criticized Rafsanjani's Cabinet for allowing a US plane loaded with tents and clothes for Kurdish refugees to land at Tehran airport.

An editorialist in an Islamic newspaper went so far as to write that the clothes sent might be infected with the AIDS virus. A few hours later a senior civil servant with the Interior Ministry said used clothing would be returned to the US.

The move was interpreted by Westerners in Tehran as the result of a compromise between the Cabinet and the legislative.

Rafsanjani and most of his ministers have a somewhat different attitude toward the US. Though they continue to criticize the US government for "its hostile attitude toward the Islamic republic and its imperialist policy in the region," these officials never say they definitely rule out resumption of diplomatic ties with the US.

When a source close to Rafsanjani is asked under what conditions the Iranian government would accept a resumption of ties with the US, he responds: "We want all American sanctions against Iran to be lifted. We want all our assets in the US to be unfrozen. And we want the US to deliver us a load of military spare parts that had been ordered and paid for by the imperial government, but is presently rusting somewhere in the US."

The source says Iran is currently concentrating on developing its relations with Europe.

European diplomats confirm that Iran is trying in positioning itself as an ally to Europe in the Gulf region to counter growing US influence, and to a certain extent it is succeeding.

Upon arriving in the southern Iranian city of Ahwaz, May 4, Roland Dumas, the French minister of foreign affairs, was welcomed with a billboard saying "Down with the US. Cheers for France and Europe."

President Bush has repeatedly said that the US desires to have better relations with Iran, but wants the Islamic republic to take the first step by using its influence to secure the freedom of six American citizens still held hostage in Lebanon.

Iranian diplomats say the hostage problem is more difficult to solve than they had anticipated and has become "an embarrassing question." But those diplomats refuse to elaborate.

Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati said April 6 that "the hostage question is deadlocked." A few days later he said the US should pressure the Israeli government to secure the release of several Muslim leaders imprisoned in Israel.

Among those cited by the minister is Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a Lebanese Shiite cleric abducted by the Israelis in July 1989. In return, Mr. Velayati said, Iran will cooperate to secure the freeing of the remaining 12 Western hostages in Lebanon.

In an apparent response to Velayati's proposals, Israeli officials said their country is ready to enter such negotiations provided they also include the plight of three Israeli soldiers believed held by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hizbullah.

Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hizbullah that is said to hold the hostages, said over the weekend of May 4 that "a combination of circumstances favors an agreement on the hostages affair. The matter will be settled soon."

Western diplomats in Tehran reacted with caution to Mr. Fadlallah's statement. The diplomats were divided in their opinion on the hostages problem. Some say that Iran has lost control over the captors, who they say are now under the influence of organized crime in Lebanon. Others say the key to the problem remains in Tehran.

Those diplomats that believe Tehran holds the key contend that political bickering between Rafsanjani and the parliament have prevented the president from forcing Lebanese groups to release the captives.

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