Britain, Iran in dispute over envoy

Feb. 8, 2002 at 1:38 PM
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LONDON, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- Britain and Iran remained locked in a diplomatic standoff Friday after Tehran turned down London's new ambassador to the Iranian capital.

Iran said it reserved the right to reject any appointee it did not like, and Britain said it would not suggest a substitute for veteran diplomat David Reddaway.

Reddaway, a Farsi-speaking diplomat who served in Iran twice earlier, was turned down as Britain's new ambassador to the country after Iranian hardline media accusations he was a Jewish spy from the British MI6 intelligence agency.

The matter of Reddaway's background quickly was resolved when it shown he was not Jewish and a Foreign Office spokesman also refuted claims he was an intelligence officer.

"None of the allegations against Reddaway are well founded. He is exceptionally well qualified for the job," said the spokesman. "There are no plans at present to put forward a replacement.

The increasing tension between the two countries was triggered by comments, mostly in the hardline, staunchly anti-western media in Tehran, which is seen to reflect forces opposed to modernist Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi described the British refusal to replace Reddaway as "surprising." He added: "Accepting or not accepting an ambassador who is introduced by a country is the natural right of the host country," he said in comments carried by the state news agency.

"This is not an unprecedented issue," he said. "It has repeatedly happened in diplomatic ties of many countries, without undermining their relations."

British officials said efforts to have Reddaway accepted through official channels also have been unsuccessful so far. British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the issue in a telephone conversation with Khatami last month but was unable to bring about a change of heart.

The spokesman not only rebutted Iranian claims but also clearly indicated Britain's annoyance with the decision.

"The fact that Mr. Reddaway has not been accepted will clearly have an impact on the conduct of our bilaterail relations, he said. "It will not be possible to engage at the same degree without an ambassador in Tehran and this will inevitably impact on our dealings with the Iranian ambassador here."

Officials said the tough line does not presage a complete reversal of Britain's policy of critical engagment with Iran but it does recognize the absence of an ambassador will make dialogue more difficult.

The row over the ambassadorial appointment threatened to undo progress made in diplomatic reconciliation between the two countries since last year, when Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited Tehran twice and won Iranian condemnation of the Taliban and al Qaida terrorist activities in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Foreign Office spokesman said: "We always had concerns about Iran's support for terrorist groups and development of weapons of mass destruction, as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw repeatedly made clear. He did so very firmly on both his visits to Tehran."

While the stand-off continues, London has announced its intentions to downgrade its dealings with the Iranian embassy in London. Foreign Office sources told UPI London would deny Iran's ambassador to Britain access to any officials above the level normally given to a charge d'affaires.

At the same time, Britain's mission in Iran would continue to be led by a charge d'affaires.

The Foreign Office declined comment on whether the diplomatic tiff was linked to Washington's inclusion of Iran in "an axis of evil" including its neighbor and former war adversary Iraq and also North Korea.

An Iranian professor of politics at Tehran University, Sadegh Ziebo-Kalam, told the British Broadcasting Corp. he believed Iran's action stemmed from the perception Britain was "downgrading" the status of Iran.

"The people of Iran want to say to London that there is a price Britain has to pay if it wants to have closer ties with Washington," he told the BBC.

Britain and Iran resumed full diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level only in 1998 -- two decades after a steady slide that followed the 1979 overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and installation of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic.

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