Western Nations Push Iran on Policy, Diplomats Say the West Is Seeking to Moderate Iran's Stands on Salman Rushdie and the Middle East Peace Process

Article excerpt

WHEN "condemned" writer Salman Rushdie was invited Thursday to his first meeting inside the British Foreign Office, diplomats in Tehran immediately began considering what lay behind Britain's move.

Some Western diplomats interviewed here say the British government is setting up a diplomatic confrontation to force Iran to alter its stance on a range of international issues. These include Iran's opposition to the peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors as well as the decree by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that sentenced Mr. Rushdie to death for his book, "The Satanic Verses."

According to these diplomats, the timing of the offensive may be linked to the fact that several foreign observers here say the Iranian government, for economic reasons, is in its weakest position in years. Iranian officials say they do not need Western financial help or a rescheduling of the $6 billion foreign debt, but they do need to expand trade with the West. And they need guarantees from Western nations that trade agreements will be fulfilled.

The leadership here is caught between a population that is demanding an increase in its standard of living and a currency shortage that does not leave much room for maneuver.

The Iranians also say their difficulties are partly caused by Western pressure. A source close to President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "The currency shortage we're in is the consequence of pressures applied by the US government, or its allies, mainly Japan.

"Japan, like several other countries, would pay for their purchases of oil several months in advance. At the request of the US government, Japan canceled this agreement in August last year and decided that it would pay for its oil at the time of delivery. That's why we had a gap in our income of currencies," the source says. "Some European countries believe in the present circumstances they can extort political concessions from us, but they're wrong."

Western nations, particularly in the European Community, have long insisted that Iran drop Rushdie's death sentence. The Iranians also pose an obstacle to the US-led Middle East peace process, since Iran opposes any talks between the Israelis, whose nation they refuse to recognize, and its Arab neighbors. Iran has also supported the militant Palestinian group Hamas, a strong opponent of the peace process.

Diplomats here say the West hopes to moderate Iran's position on the peace process in exchange for a broadening of trade relations.

At the same time, the pressures coming from the Iranian population itself are strong. …