Local Time

Friday, March 25, 2005

No Plans to Invade Iran, Blair Insists

By Andrew Woodcock, PA Political Correspondent

There are no plans being made for a military invasion of Iran, Prime Minister Tony Blair has insisted in an interview released today.

“Iran is not Iraq,” Mr Blair told Muslim News. The search for a resolution to tensions over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions was being pursued only by diplomatic means “at the moment”, he said.

Mr Blair’s comments came in an interview, carried out at 10 Downing Street on March 1, in which he expressed hope that anger over the invasion of Iraq would not prevent Muslim voters backing Labour in the upcoming general election.

Mr Blair said he had “given up” trying to win over people who were fundamentally opposed to the war, but asked them to understand that terrorists, and not coalition forces, were responsible for the deaths taking place in Iraq now.

He called on Muslim voters to recognise that, whatever their opinions on the war, Labour had done a lot to help them over issues like setting up faith schools and introducing legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred.

“Although there have been some disagreements on some of the international issues – and I understand that and do not disrespect them... I hope in the end people realise we actually have done a lot to make progress,” he said.

Labour faces the possibility of an anti-war backlash in a number of normally safe seats with large Muslim populations, including Oona King’s Bethnal Green and Bow constituency in east London and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s Blackburn.

On Iran, Mr Blair said that the UK, France and Germany were leading the way on seeking a diplomatic solution, backed by the United States.

“Iran is not Iraq,” he said. “There are no plans for military invasion of Iran.

“The whole of the international community are saying to Iran, as it is saying to Syria now, ‘Abide by your obligations and try and help what is a great process of change happening in the Middle East today’.”

He added: “I don’t know of anybody planning military action against Iran. But there is a concerted effort by the European countries. France, Germany and the UK are working together, backed by America, to get the Iranians to understand their obligations under the Atomic Energy Authority rules.

“Let’s just pursue the diplomatic path for the moment. No-one is talking about anything else at the moment.”

The diplomatic approach to Iran was backed by Conservative leader Michael Howard, who was also interviewed for this month’s edition of Muslim News, published on Friday.

“The best way forward in relation to Iran is through negotiation and diplomacy,” said Mr Howard.

“There is some advantage in taking the question to the UN Security Council.”

Mr Howard restated his party’s opposition to the law against the incitement of religious hatred proposed in the Government’s Serious and Organised Crime Bill.

He said he was not sure it was possible to find a form of words that would provide such protection without harming free speech.

“I’m not against the principle of making incitement to religious hatred an offence,” said Mr Howard.

“But I haven’t yet seen a form of words which would achieve that result – and, unless and until I do, I will tend to oppose the clause.”

But Mr Blair insisted he would press ahead with the measure, which he said would not impact on free speech.

“I believe strongly in the freedom of expression and freedom of religion,” he said.

“But that’s completely different thing from freedom to incite hatred against a religion.

“The fact is that we’ve had the (legislation against) incitement to racial hatred, but people make jokes about race and there is no problem. Incitement to racial hatred has not led people being unable to implement their art or creativity.”

Challenged on the lack of Muslim representation in Parliament, Mr Blair acknowledged that Labour “should do more” and hoped to add to its tally of two Muslim MPs in the election.

Mr Howard said he very much hoped that the Conservatives will get at least two Muslim MPs in this year’s poll and “many more” in the next election.

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