Iranian Leaders Rally Behind Gulf Neutrality

Unity allows President Rafsanjani to propose ideas for peace to Saddam and make first public overtures to US in more than a decade

IRANIAN leaders are uniting behind the government's policy of neutrality in the Gulf war, as the leadership seems to be positioning itself to play a mediating role in the conflict. Iranian officials contacted by phone in Tehran last weekend say that members of parliament who had urged President Hashemi Rafsanjani to side with Iraq have changed their minds and now say that the Islamic republic should keep itself out of the conflict.

``This political unity at home allows the government to fully implement Iran's policy of neutrality,'' said a diplomat contacted at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran.

President Rafsanjani reaffirmed this policy at a press conference yesterday. Iran will remain neutral, he said, even if Turkey takes part in the fighting.

Concerning Iraqi aircraft presently in Iran, Rafsanjani said, ``The Iraqis won't ask us to get them back as long as the war lasts. If they were to ask us such a thing we would definitely say no.''

Rafsanjani had no specific peace plan, but said he has forwarded a letter to President Saddam Hussein spelling out ``ideas that, if accepted by Iraq, may lead to a peace plan.''

He also said he is ready to meet Saddam, and added, ``If it is necessary for peace, it would be logical to talk to the Americans.''

This is the first time since the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 that an Iranian leader has said in public he is ready to meet and talk to a US official. (The Iran-Contra affair involved secret negotiations.)

Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, said on Jan. 30 that Iraqi pilots landing in Iran would be treated as prisoners of war. The next day, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati publicly admonished Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi for not having warned Iran in advance that Iraqi military planes would enter its airspace.

Mr. Hammadi was on a visit to Tehran, apparently to try to rally support from the Islamic republic. At the end of this visit on Saturday, Mr. Velayati repeated that all Iraqi aircraft in Iran would remain stranded until the end of the war.

Iranian journalists contacted in Tehran this weekend said Hammadi returned with a letter from Rafsanjani for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In his letter, Rafsanjani asked Saddam to withdraw his troops from Kuwait, according to IRNA, the Iranian news agency.

Western observers contacted in Tehran say this political evolution is largely the consequence of low turnout at demonstrations organized over the past weeks by radical members of parliament to protest the presence of coalition forces in the Gulf region.

Indeed, no more than 50 demonstrators gathered in front of Tehran University Jan. 18 to condemn the beginning of coalition air forces' offensive against Iraq. This rally was officially sponsored by Iran's parliament.

Western observers in Tehran also say that, in the days following the start of the war, Rafsanjani succeeded in convincing his Cabinet members and parliament that by siding with Iraq, Iran would in the long run find itself on the losing side, which would be against the country's strategic interests.

On Jan. 24 supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech: ``George Bush is a murderer who slaughters Iraq's innocent people.'' But Mr. Khamenei added, ``those who support [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein are wrong.

``What Saddam has done in Kuwait is unjustifiable,'' he concluded. ``This is in no way a war between Islam and the blasphemy as Saddam Hussein tries to portray it. This is just a war between two evils.'' Khamenei's comments came in sharp contrast to an earlier Sept. 12 speech in which he called for a holy war against the United States-led forces in the Gulf region.

An aide to Rafsanjani contacted Friday in Tehran said Iran's leaders are increasingly worried that the present war may in the longer run have disastrous consequences throughout the Middle East.

``When at war with us Saddam Hussein once told us that he would continue to fight even if we reached the outskirts of Baghdad,'' he said. ``We think he is in the same mood and will continue the battle with all weapons he has, even if he loses Kuwait.

``We're afraid that this war is only at its beginning, and we believe the Islamic world in general will find it hard to accept that non-Islamic soldiers enter the territory of Iraq.''

The aide added that Iran's government vehemently condemns coalition bombardments of civilian areas in Iraq and therefore supports the nationwide organization of demonstrations to show ``the Iranian nation's solidarity with the Muslim people of Iraq slaughtered by US-led forces.''

The official concluded by saying: ``All this has led us to use all means at our disposal to try to secure a cease-fire as soon as possible. We have also decided to send 150 tons of food and medications to Iraq.''

An Iranian diplomat interviewed in Paris insisted on the inalienability of existing borders in the Middle East.

``That means my country opposes the dismemberment of Iraq as well as any border change between Iraq and Turkey because the Islamic Republic is against any broadening of NATO's influence zone in the Middle East,'' he said.

This diplomat concluded by saying that a spillover of the war that would include a direct intervention by Israel would ``force Iran to review its current position.''

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