19 October Reuters

Iran described as key to avoiding clash of civilisations

 IranExpert

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More than any other country, Iran is in a position to help prevent a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the rest of the world and seems inclined to do so, a U.N. envoy said on Thursday.

"Iran is potentially in a position to make a major contribution to avoid this clash of civilizations" that some fear is developing after the September 11 attacks on the United States, Giandomenico Picco said.

Picco, a special envoy to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for a "dialogue among civilizations" program, said he was not speaking in an official capacity. He was a senior U.N. official a decade ago and negotiated the release of Western hostages in Lebanon.

He told the Atlantic Council, a trans-Atlantic group promoting a new U.S. relationship with Iran, that Iranian leaders seem to have decided not to allow extremists behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to isolate Iran and other Islamic nations from the rest of the world.

"Various power centers (in Tehran) have realized that the greatest danger is marginalization," he said.

He called Iran's offer to cooperate with the United States if any U.S. plane crashes inside Iran during military operations in neighboring Afghanistan a "significant" signal in the diplomatic "ballet" between Tehran and Washington.

And implying another positive signal, he said the pro-Iran Hizbollah group, which Washington includes on its terrorism list, "launched no operation against Israel" in the past year -- a claim U.S. officials later disputed.

Iranian leaders have strongly condemned last month's deadly suicide attacks in New York and Washington, raising cautious expectations of better relations after 22 years of hostility.

But Iran has publicly opposed the U.S.-led military strikes in Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban has harbored the Saudi-born Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept 11 attacks.

Picco said the hijackers who slammed commercial jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "pushing the Islamic world and in particular the Arab world into a possible ghetto, isolated by everybody else."

He predicted one outcome could be that two years hence, China, which has backed the U.S.-led anti-terror effort, would become the ninth member of the group of leading industrial nations while Islamic nations remained on the sidelines.

Faced with this, "Iran in my view is now ready to play a role which until now it has not played," Picco said.

IRAN FIGHTING AGAINST ISOLATION

Iran, which has been trying to integrate with the West and improve its economy, "has no intention of being isolated from the international community ... has no intention of being taken down by those who hijacked Islam and the Arab world" with the U.S. attacks, he said.

Iran could help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, contribute intelligence to the U.S.-led anti-terror effort and indirectly assist military operations, he said.

The United States has not had official diplomatic ties with Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979 when student revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

In recent years, Washington has offered an official dialogue with Iran that was not accepted. However, the two sides communicate informally through various channels, including the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.

One obstacle has been a U.S. demand than Iran stop sponsoring groups like Hizbollah waging war against Israel.

Picco said "Hizbollah since the beginning of the (Palestinian) intifada 12 months ago has launched no operations against Israel" and called the past year "the 12 quietest months" on Israel's border with Lebanon in more than a decade.

But U.S. officials said the situation is more complicated. While the border has been quieter, there has been some Hizbollah shelling and with Israel now withdrawn from southern Lebanon, all such attacks should have been ended, they said.

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