Saturday 24 May 2003
UK and state department reject blunt approach
The Pentagon has proposed a policy of regime change in Iran, after reports that al-Qaida leaders are coordinating terrorist attacks from Iran.
But the plan is opposed by the US state department and the British government, officials in Washington said yesterday.
The Pentagon plan would involve overt means, such as anti-government broadcasts transmitted to Iran, and covert means, possibly including support for the Iraq-based armed opposition movement Mojahedin Khalq (MEK), even though it is designated a terrorist group by the state department.
The state department and Britain have objected to the plan, saying that it would backfire, undermining the moderates around President Mohamed Khatami.
"A lot is going on on both sides of the Atlantic to take another look at Iran policy," an official said.
The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has been to Tehran several times and believes that British and European engagement in Iran has paid dividends in moderating Tehran's behaviour towards the west.
But the policy of engagement is likely to come under US pressure in the next few weeks, after the US allegations about al-Qaida and Iran's nuclear weapons programme.
The issue was to be debated at a meeting of President Bush's top national security advisers in the White House on Thursday, according to an official in Washington.
But the meeting was postponed pending Tehran's response to American allegation that it is harbouring a Qaida cell.
Members of the Bush administration have been quoted in the US press as saying that recent terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia were coordinated by the cell in Iran and that communications about the attack were traced back to the country.
"There's no question but that there have been and are today senior al-Qaida leaders in Iran, and they are busy," the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said this week.
Among the Qaida leaders alleged to be in Iran is Saif al-Adel, from Egypt.
The Iranian government has denied sheltering al-Qaida, and claims to have deported about 500 al-Qaida suspects in the past two years to other Islamic states.
Iranian officials are also reported to have told UN officials that it had al-Qaida suspects in custody.
Washington is sceptical and is waiting to see if Tehran hands over the suspects before deciding its policy.
Britain is pushing for a coordinated US-European policy towards Tehran.
"We have said very clearly to the Iranian government that harbouring al-Qaida would be entirely unacceptable," the prime minister, Tony Blair, said on Thursday.
"I hope very much that if they are indeed harbouring al-Qaida operatives, that they yield them up."
Iran has repeatedly denied the accusation and called on Washington to share its evidence.
Saeed Pourazizi, an adviser to President Khatami, said on Thursday that Iran had a clear policy of fighting al-Qaida, and accused Washington of pursuing a long-term strategy to put pressure on the government.
"[Al-Qaida] is a terrorist group threatening Iran's interests, its extremist interpretation of Islam contradicts the Islamic democracy Iran is trying to promote," he said.
"There is no commonality of anything between us."
But analysts say hardline elements of Iran's leadership may see al-Qaida as a useful ally against a common foe, the United States, a view not shared by the reformists allied with President Khatami.
Flynt Leverett, a former middle east specialist in President Bush's national security council, said the move towards regime change as a basis for Iran policy was built on a false assumption.
"It's built on the belief that Tehran is a house of cards waiting to be pushed over and if the US is smart enough, it could push the house of cards over, and I think this is not a very prudent way to proceed."