Abbas accepts invitation to visit Iran
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who wants to talk peace with Israel, has accepted an invitation to pay an official visit to Israel's arch-enemy Iran, officials said on Wednesday.
Official Iranian policy advocates Israel's destruction but the reformist government has also said it would not oppose a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict if the Palestinian people wanted this.
Israel has hailed Abbas's bid to end a bloody 4-year uprising by militants, now observing a tacit cease-fire at Abbas's behest, but has accused Iran of trying to scuttle progress by continuing aid to what it calls "terrorist groups." "Abu Mazen has received an invitation to visit Iran. He has accepted the invitation and will decide on the date after he returns home," a senior Palestinian official told Reuters, using Abbas's popular nickname. Abbas is in Turkey, having also visited Moscow earlier in the week.
A source close to Iran's Foreign Ministry confirmed Abbas would probably visit shortly and said his trip showed that Tehran wanted "friendly ties with the Palestinian government as it has with all Palestinian groups."
"This doesn't mean that Iran will change its view about the peace process. Iran has always supported the Palestinians politically," another Iranian source said. Iran's ties with Palestinian leaders have long been strained over their increasing readiness to compromise with Israel, especially since 1990s interim peace deals that gave Palestinians self-rule in Israeli-occupied territories.
The moderate Abbas was overwhelmingly elected on Jan. 9 as Yasser Arafat's successor on a platform of non-violent struggle for statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
He has since coaxed an informal cease-fire from militants, ushering in relative calm in the region, and is to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Egypt on Feb. 8, the first summit between the sides in years. A senior Israeli official said his government saw no reason for Iran to support Abbas but that the Palestinian president might be trying to remove as many obstacles as possible to a revival of peacemaking.
"In line with his current policy of trying to reach understanding with (militant) opposition groups, he appears to be seeking Iranian agreement not to scuttle the current process he is engaged in," the Israeli official said.
"The Iranians have an interest in showing that they can play a constructive role and be an alternative to the United States in this region. I do not think that this is our business. If Abbas wants to sell his goods, then good luck."
The United States and Israel accuse Iran of arming and financing militant anti-Israel groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas. Iran says it only provides them with "moral support."
One Tehran political analyst said the true sign of a dramatic change in Iranian policy would be if Abbas got an audience with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wants no compromise with Israel which he says should be destroyed.
"Abu Mazen would certainly ask for Iran's help in reining in extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad," added the analyst who declined to be named.
Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader who died in November, visited Tehran soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rewarded Arafat by handing over the Israeli embassy to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But in 1998, Khamenei called Arafat a lackey of Israel over his signing of a 1993 interim peace with Israel, provoking a war of words with the Palestinian officials.
Arafat paid another visit to Iran in 2000 but got a chilly reception that mirrored Tehran's deepseated opposition to his participation in U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks that ultimately collapsed into renewed bloodshed.