Hardliners in Iran, critical of what they interpret as a softening of attitude by the Islamic Republic towards western powers, have forced a showdown with President Khatami in the hope of sabotaging his rapprochement with the West
Two focuses of Iran's turbulent relations with the West held media attention as The Middle East went to press.
The first was the trial of the mayor of Teheran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi on charges of "corruption". The trial was seen as a showdown forced by hardline Islamic clerics hoping to sabotage the moderate and modernising policy of President Mohammed Khatami.
The second was the more amusing, but by no means less significant, football game between the United States and Iran in France.
The Iranian football team is also on trial. The result of their match -- on 21 June -- is not judged according to the game's rules or the players' performance on the pitch, but in the context of the Islamic Republic's 19 year old war against the `Great Satan', the name given to the United States by the late Imam Ayatollah Khomeini.
An encounter of a similar kind took place during the Atlanta Olympics two years ago when an American wrestler beat his Iranian rival to a gold medal. Official Iranian newspapers protested at the outcome saying "criminal" America was not worthy of hosting the games.
Therefore, the announcement by members of the Iranian football team that they would exchange shirts with the Americans after the game regardless of the result has alarmed the ruling clergy. The long standing brief to Iranian officials -- whether in sport or any other field -- is that they should never ever shake hands with Americans they meet at international gatherings.
The hardliner controlled media of the Islamic Republic was dismayed when Iranian audiences applauded American and Iranian wrestlers as they shook hands and hugged each other during a friendly match in Teheran last February. The newspaper Jomhuri Islami (The Islamic Republic) sees the International sport arena as a dangerous conspiracy against Islam. "The Americans used sports to normalise relations with China and they are using the same tactics with Iran," the paper warned.
The Iranian national psyche seems to be rather schizophrenic when it comes to dealing with the Western world.
While the Islamic hardliners -- encouraged by the spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- want to keep their puritan Islamic Republic isolated from the the "corruption" of the West, millions of...