Facing the threat of increased international isolation following the recent wave of suicide bombings in Israel, Iran is mounting a diplomatic and public relations offensive to distance itself from the Palestinian militants claiming responsibility and is strongly denying that it gives money or training to the bombers.
In one sign of its concern, the Iranian government took the unusual step Thursday of repudiating a report by the state-owned IRNA news agency in which Iran appeared to applaud the "heroism" of the bombers and hail the killings as "divine retribution" against the "illegal Zionist entity."
"It [the report] does not reflect the views of the Iranian government," Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters. He blamed the report on a low-ranking Iranian journalist.
"We believe acts of violence against innocent people . . . should not be condoned," Zarif said. The IRNA dispatch had provoked a warning Tuesday from French Prime Minister Alain Juppe that there would be diplomatic consequences for countries such as Iran and Libya that seemed to rejoice at the bombings.
Although Iran has grown accustomed to periodic denunciations from Washington, the unexpectedly sharp response from France, with which Tehran has friendlier relations, clearly set off alarm bells. Iran immediately began "backpedaling desperately," according to diplomatic sources here.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has identified Iran's Islamic republic as the prime sponsor of international terrorism, saying this week, "It provides financial backing [and] tactical advice, and we see the Iranian hand in the conduct of the various terrorist groups."
Already faced with a faltering economy, a virtual absence of outside investment and more than $30 billion in foreign debt, Iran can ill afford being ostracized further, say Western diplomats in Tehran.
Zarif said Iran is not seeking confrontation and has no interest in supporting bombers in Israel and the West Bank.
He said Iran's belief is that such deeds stem from the failure of the current peace process to meet the aspirations of a significant part of the Palestinian people. "Israeli policies have been very infamous and clear, and they have their own consequences," he said.
"But Iran does not have any role in helping those consequences, encouraging those consequences, bringing about those consequences, funding those consequences or supporting those consequences," he said.
Iran has routine contacts with Hamas, the extremist Palestinian group claiming responsibility for the blasts, Zarif said. But he denied giving it money or other support.
Although Iran disapproves of the Arab-Israeli peace process, he said, "Iran has clearly said that it does not take any practical steps to impede the process," including "provision of any financial or military support to Hamas."
Asked if Hamas gets funding from nongovernmental sources in Iran, Zarif continued: "To the knowledge of our government, there is no link to Hamas through any Iranian entity operating from Iranian territory. We have not been informed of any funding from any private source within Iran."
As part of the government's attempt at damage control, diplomats from Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan were summoned to a meeting at the Foreign Ministry. Zarif said he told the diplomats that the United States and Israel are deliberately distorting Iran's relationship with Hamas, looking for a foreign scapegoat rather than trying to get at the root of the problem.
On Wednesday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly told a military convocation: "We detest terrorism. Our country detests terrorists." He accused the United States and Israel of being responsible for terrorist acts against the people of "occupied Palestine."
The United States, which last year initiated a unilateral trade embargo against Iran, urged its allies to join in further isolating Tehran after the latest bombings. The Clinton administration has made support for the peace process a major element of U.S. foreign policy, and it has been increasingly angered by what it sees as a clear effort by Iran to undermine that process.
Zarif conceded that proposed sanctions against Iran or its trading partners would be "an impediment" for the country. But he denied that it would be fatal.
"To be absolutely honest, Iran will find routes to evade this. Our trading partners will find routes to evade this."