Straw distances UK from threats to Syria and Iran
Ian Black and Patrick Wintour
Thursday April 3, 2003
Britain distanced itself from US sabre rattling yesterday, insisting it would have "nothing to do" with threats from Washington against Iran and Syria and announcing a relaxation of export controls on dual-use civilian and military equipment for Iran.
Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, defended Tehran and Damascus after warnings from the US to both regimes.
Mr Straw is meeting the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, along with other EU and Nato foreign ministers in Brussels today amid signs of sharp divergences between London and Washington over wider Middle East and post-war issues.
President George Bush has identified Iran as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea, while his hawkish defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, last week warned Syria to halt shipments of night-vision goggles and other equipment to Saddam Hussein, calling them "hostile acts".
Washington also said Iraqi Shia Muslim fighters supported by Iran - the so-called Badr Corps - were inside Iraq and would be considered combatants if they interfered with US or British forces.
"Iran is a completely different country and situation from Iraq," Mr Straw told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "Iran is an emerging democracy and there would be no case whatsoever for taking any kind of action.
"We have had good cooperation from the Iranian government _ and the Iranians have more reason to know of the terror imposed by Saddam Hussein, not just on his own people but on other peoples in the region, than almost any other country including Kuwait."
Asked whether he was worried that an impression was being created that once Iraq had been tackled, Syria and Iran might be next in line, Mr Straw replied: "It would worry me if it were true. It is not true, and we would have nothing whatever to do with an approach like that."
The Iran export decision, announced by Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien in a written statement to parliament, means that British exporters will find it easier to get access to Iranian markets.
He said ministers were to suspend future meetings of the Iran working group - a Whitehall committee of specialist officials who check all dual-use export orders and report to ministers. The working party worked in parallel with a specialist group which checked every suspicious export to Iraq.
In future, decisions will be taken by specialist officials in either the Ministry of Defence or the Department of Trade and Industry.
Mr O'Brien said: "This is solely procedural change in order to streamline the export licensing process and to reduce delays for UK exporters."
Britain has been improving its relations with Iran and Syria by trying to encourage reformers in the Islamic republic, and economic and political liberalisation by President Bashar al-Assad.
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