Tehran (UPI) Oct 17, 2005
The already cold atmosphere of Tehran-London relations has intensified, with the Islamic republic accusing the United Kingdom of inciting unrest in the Iranian oil-rich province of Khuzestan on the Iraq border, and British accusations that Iran is interfering in Iraq.
Six people were killed and some 95 others injured when two bombs exploded outside a crowded shopping center in the Iranian southwestern city of Ahvaz Saturday.
The province, adjacent to British-occupied southern Iraq and containing the vast majority of Iran's Arabic-speaking minority, has been hit by a wave of unrest this year.
Back in June and just ahead of Iran's presidential elections, a series of explosions in the city claimed seven lives and injured scores of others.
Moreover, the area was the scene of a number of clashes between ethnic Arabs and security forces in April when at least five people were killed during several days of anti-government demonstrations. Officials at the time charged the Arabic news network of Al-Jazeera with inciting ethnic and religious conflicts, ordering the closure of its offices in the country.
But this time, despite furious denials and condemnation of the attacks from London, Iranian media and officials have kept on accusing, directly or indirectly, Britain of involvement in the incident.
Following other senior Iranian political and military figures, Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Sunday he suspected British involvement in the double bomb attack.
"The presence of British forces in southern Iraq and along Iran's borders is the cause of insecurity for Iraqis and Iranians. We are strongly suspicious of British forces committing terrorist acts," he said, adding, "Iran's security and intelligence officials have come across British footprints" in past attacks in the area, according to the students' news agency ISNA.
Iran's Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi also told ISNA that "usually this kind of insecurity comes from the other side of the border and is guided from there."
And Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Hussein Mousapour told the Mehr news agency that "most probably those involved in the explosion were British agents who were involved in the previous incidents in Ahvaz and Khuzestan."
Echoing the same sentiments, the head of Iran's Basij volunteer militia, Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi, said in a speech Sunday that the unrest "had a British accent" and was aimed at creating the impression that the country was lacking in security.
However, Iran's official reaction to the bombings and the alleged involvement of Britain came from Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid-Reza Asefi, who told reporters that security and intelligence agents were in the process of finding out who was behind the attack. No one has so far claimed responsibility for the bombs, which are said to have been homemade devices.
"Unlike the British, Iran does not make accusations without sufficient evidence to support them," he said, in reference to Tehran's complaints that the UK has not provided evidence to support its accusations about Iran's alleged involvement in Iraq.
But in a statement issued on Sunday, the British embassy in Tehran voiced "its revulsion at and condemnation of the terrorist attacks," also sympathizing with the victims, their families and the people of Iran
"There has been speculation in the past about alleged British involvement in Khuzestan. We reject these allegations. Any linkage between the British Government and these terrorist outrages is without foundation," part of the statement said.
"As we have made clear officially to the Government of Iran, the British Government and British forces in Iraq stand ready to help in any way we can to prevent attacks of this kind or identify those responsible and bring them to justice," it further said.
However, the Iranian allegations come amid a wider war of words between the two countries.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and some other senior officials have repeatedly said that a recent series of deadly attacks on British troops in southern Iraq led back to Iran and the country's backed militant group Hezbollah. They, in particular, point to the weapons used to target British forces, saying they are of Iranian origin.
Although Blair originally said he "couldn't be sure" of this, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters in London on Sunday that explosives which killed at least eight British soldiers did originate from either Hezbollah or Iran.
"What we have presented to the Iranians is evidence which, in our judgment, clearly links the improvised explosive devices which have been used against British and other troops, mainly in the south of Iraq, to Hezbollah and to Iran," he said, rejecting, at the same time, Iranian comments that the explosives might have left behind in Iraq as a result of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq.
But on the same day, the London-based daily Independent contradicted the claims, revealing that the bombs used were developed by the IRA in Northern Ireland using technology passed on by Britain's security services in a botched "sting" operation more than a decade ago, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported from London.
"The technology reached the Middle East through the IRA's cooperation with Palestinian groups. In turn, some of these groups used to be sponsored by Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath party," the paper quoted a former British agent as saying.
During her recent visit to London, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed up the British allegations, saying, "I have every reason to believe that the British are right about this."
Britain is also leading Western efforts to secure "objective guarantees" that Iran will not divert its nuclear energy drive towards weapons development. Last month it sponsored a resolution passed by the International Atomic Energy Agency that paves the way for Iran to be referred to the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program.
In the past two weeks or so, the Iranian press has also built up a head of steam over the issue, accusing Britain of making the claims to increase pressure on the country to curtail its nuclear ambitions. Some newspapers have even questioned the benefits of continued relations with London.
The British embassy in Tehran has been the scene of occasional protests in recent months by Islamist students and militia groups, who, at times, have tried to storm into the compound but have been prevented by the police and security forces.
Meanwhile, the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Monday summoned British charge d'affaires Kate Smith, in absence of the ambassador, to convey Tehran's protests to London over what it called baseless charges that Iran was meddling in Iraq.
The English-language daily Iran News focused on the issue in its editorial on Monday: "...If the constitutional referendum held recently in Iraq could bring about peace, stability and security as well as a strong and powerful government to the war-torn country, Iran's western borders will also likely benefit.
"But that would require the government of violence-battered Iraq to sign a bilateral agreement on border security with Iran. U.S.- and UK-led occupying forces are neither bound to any rules nor are they accountable. They simply cannot be trusted.
"Therefore, Iran should support the formation of a strong, commanding and popularly-elected government in Iraq because history has proven time and again that security is not an isolated occurrence but indeed a shared phenomenon."
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