British Foreign & Commonwealth Office Secretary Jack Straw conducted a rapid tour of the Middle East, visiting Iran, Jordan, Israel and Egypt in an attempt to bolster relations and sound out regional reactions to moves made by the US and its allies to counter perceived terrorist threats.

The most senior British official to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution, Straw had meetings with President Khatami and Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Kharrazi in which he offered to share evidence with Tehran relavent to Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda group. ‘I have not come here as a representative of the US government,’ Straw was reported as saying. His visit was followed by a delegation of top EU officials.

Hopes that high-level contact would bring Iran in line behind intended US action and facilitate full diplomatic rehabilitation were tarnished by the reiteration by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the US’ problems would mount if it attacked Afghanistan (see left).

Along with a number of Arab countries – most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – Iran has stressed that the US must produce proof that Bin Laden and his supporters were responsible for the 11 September attacks before any strikes are made against him or the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Attempts by the Taliban to distance themselves from Bin Laden, by asking him to leave Afghanistan voluntarily, fell on deaf US ears, with President Bush declaring that Bin Laden was ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’.

As US forces begin to mobilise in preparation for probable action in Afghanistan, Arab leaders have been demanding restraint. ‘I call on the US not to act in haste and to give full opportunity to all diplomatic and legal means before resorting to military action,’ said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, UAE defence minister and Crown Prince of Dubai. ‘A military operation could have grave repercussions on world peace and security and trigger a human catastrophe.’ The line adopted by the bulk of the Arab world remains unchanged: the terrorist strikes on the US have been condemned but retaliation that might harm civilians is opposed.

The political isolation of the Taliban regime was compounded by the late-September decisions by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to sever diplomatic relations with Kabul. The two Gulf states, along with Pakistan, were alone in officially recognising the legitimacy of the Taliban’s claim to form the government of Afghanistan.

On the strategic front, Pakistan on 27 September reached an agreement with the US on the general nature of the support it will render to military operations. No specific contingency plan was drawn up, but US-led forces have been given permission to use Pakistani airspace, and Pakistan will provide logistical support for ground operations against forces in Afghanistan.

However, Pakistan has announced that it will maintain diplomatic contact with the Taliban, and has warned that financial and military support from the US for the opposition forces in northern Afghanistan will only contribute further to the destabilisation of the country.

Debate on the form US action could take against the perceived broader terrorist threat continues. US Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that, while the short-term focus would be on Afghanistan, in the coming weeks US attention would turn to other countries believed to harbour terrorists.