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Britain begins threatening iran { October 6 2005 }

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Britain runs out of patience with its former friends in Tehran
By Christopher Adams and Roula Khalaf
Published: October 6 2005 19:15 | Last updated: October 6 2005 19:15

Not so long ago, London appeared to enjoy an almost cordial relationship with Iran. Tony Blair, prime minister, regularly despatched Jack Straw, his foreign secretary, to cultivate ties with the Islamic republic in the run-up to the Iraq war and again, afterwards, when Britain played a lead role in ensuring Tehran's nuclear ambitions were kept on hold.

But the relationship is becoming confrontational. Mr Blair on Thursday bluntly warned Tehran not to interfere in Iraq and declared that he would not be intimidated by Iran's efforts to put pressure on London over the nuclear dispute.

Mr Blair said he believed, though was not certain, that Iran was supplying weapons technology to Iraqi insurgents who have carried out bomb attacks on western forces, killing eight British soldiers in the last few months. Similar allegations have been made over the past year by US officials.

The prime minister's comments moved Britain closer to long-standing US hostility towards the Islamic republic. And, by raising the issue of the aid provided to insurgents in conjunction with Iran's approach to the nuclear issue, he attacked Tehran on two fronts.

Judging by Iran's immediate and angry response, the prospect of any deal over its nuclear programme before the issue is referred to the UN Security Council looks remote. Nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the so-called EU3 - the UK, France and Germany - collapsed in the summer after Iran restarted some sensitive nuclear experiments it had pledged to suspend. Since then, the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog, has passed a resolution that paves the way for a referral to the Security Council, a first step towards imposing sanctions.

Both European and Iranian negotiators have since expressed an interest in restarting the talks, as the IAEA has urged.

Britain has long recognised that Iran has legitimate political interests in Iraq and strong alliances with Shia groups that now dominate the government - to the point where some Iraqi politicians have complained that the British authorities in Basra have become complacent.

"The Iranians were there from day one - in the south. But the British didn't want to take any action or antagonise them because they didn't want problems in the south," says an Iraqi official. "Now it's getting to be too much."

Officials in Baghdad say Iran has worked meticulously to ensure that its interests are protected in the post-Saddam Hussein era. It has a strong intelligence presence in Iraq and is thought to have provided financial backing and advice to political groups ahead of January's elections. Last year, Tehran also sought to sign trade deals with southern Iraqi provinces, bypassing the central government in Baghdad.

With a strong presence in Iraq, says the Baghdad official, "the Iranians' behaviour will be affected by the amount of pressure that is put on them".

Whether complacent or simply realistic, the UK's past attitude has now changed, as Iran's behaviour has appeared more threatening. British officials believe they have evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been supplying insurgents in Iraq with weapons technology that has been used in a number of roadside bomb attacks.

"These comments weren't premeditated," said a senior UK official on Thursday, referring to Mr Blair's remarks. "But it was inevitable that we were going to have this discussion in public at some point. We're not absolutely certain, but we have got an awful lot of incriminating material."

The British military, he said, had found sophisticated devices for triggering explosions through infra-red technology, lethal tools that have caused the deaths of more soldiers in the last six months than at any other time.

The technology was the same as that used extensively by Lebanese Hizbollah militants and which the group obtained from Iran. "There have been interceptions near the [Iranian] border. It's coming from one direction," said the official.

London has become frustrated by Iran's repeated denials of any involvement and counter-accusations that Britain is trying to stir up trouble. This, coupled with a suspicion that it may suit Tehran to keep the US and UK under pressure while it raises the stakes in the nuclear dispute, has stretched the UK's patience to breaking point. "The fact the Iranians are pursuing these in parallel means we will be pursuing them in parallel as well."

Additional reporting by Dan Dombey in Brussels

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