Straw gave blessing to controversial university award for Iranian leader
ST ANDREWS University was encouraged by Jack Straw when he was foreign secretary to award an honorary degree to the former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, The Scotsman can reveal.
Mr Khatami will receive his degree tomorrow, when he officially opens the university's Institute for Iranian Studies.
The university's decision has been severely criticised in recent weeks by Iranian exiles, the Israeli government, academics and students.
They say Mr Khatami ran a brutal regime that regularly breached human rights and that he has also supported Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group.
But it emerged last night that the university's decision was officially sanctioned by Mr Straw after he was contacted by Sir Menzies Campbell, the university's chancellor and the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
A senior source at the university told The Scotsman: "When we were first thinking of bringing him here, we thought it was common sense to contact the government to make sure we weren't going to create a major incident.
"Sir Menzies Campbell wrote to Jack Straw to check it would be in keeping the government policy and, in his reply, he encouraged us to go ahead. He said it was very important because the UK needs to have a better relationship with Iran."
A spokesman for the Foreign Office yesterday confirmed that it had approved of Mr Khatami's visit.
He said: "It's a private visit, but we welcome it because it's important to maintain academic and cultural contact with Iran. We admire Khatami's efforts to encourage dialogue with civilisations and to build inter-faith dialogue.
"We had a policy of constructive dialogue with Khatami's government, which was a period when we saw improvements in some areas that were of concern."
Mr Khatami was due to receive his honorary degree from Sir Menzies, but the Lib Dem leader has withdrawn from the ceremony in order to attend a debate on the Iraq war at Westminster.
Laila Jazayeri, of the Association of Anglo-Iranian Academics, said she had "no doubt" that his withdrawal was partly due to the criticism he had received from those opposed to Mr Khatami's visit, including from within his own party.
She also urged the university to reconsider its decision to honour Mr Khatami.
She said: "Khatami was involved in some of the worst atrocities committed against the Iranian people, many of them students, over many years.
"It's shameful that a university with the history of St Andrews should invite a cleric with blood on his hands to receive an honorary degree. They should withdraw their invitation."
But Dr Brian Lang, the principal of St Andrews University, today mounts a staunch defence of its decision to honour Mr Khatami. He describes him as "the man with whom the West needs to engage if we are to pursue a more constructive and peaceful relationship with Iran". Writing in The Scotsman, Dr Lang says: "He has climbed out of the Iranian trench and is walking across no-man's land towards us.
"The bestowal of an honorary degree is intended to convey encouragement by the university for that desire for dialogue and mutual understanding.
"The degree denotes that the university is grasping his outstretched hand."
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