Agence France Presse
January 22, 2004 Thursday 8:07 AM Eastern Time
International News

In some corner of a foreign field, Bobby Sands still hassles the Brits

"He was a terrorist. And if the Iranians want to appear serious about
fighting terrorism, one place to start is changing the name of that street."

The call comes from a member of Her Majesty's Foreign Office, and the
offending road is Bobby Sands Street, a classic example of the wit and
wisdom of revolutionary Iran, situated as it is next to the British embassy
in Tehran.

Bobby Sands led a dramatic and ultimately fatal hunger strike in 1981 aimed
at having him and his fellow Irish Republican Army prisoners jailed for
fighting British rule in Northern Ireland classed as political detainees
and not common criminals.

"Sixty-six days of no food, and he was dead," as one regular customer at
Tehran's Bobby Sands snack bar -- another odd Iranian tribute to the IRA
man -- faithfully recalled. "He was a martyr in the Jihad against the

In all, ten men died in one of the most turbulent episodes in the Irish
conflict, made all the more traumatic for Downing Street because Sands was
also elected to the British parliament before his death.

For Iran, then in the midst of exporting the revolution and celebrating the
battle against Western oppressors, Sands' death at the age of 27 struck
something of a chord.

Having overthrown the US-backed shah of Iran themselves, the country's
clerical leaders immediately felt an affinity with the IRA's armed struggle
against occupation and the then hardline British premier Margaret Thatcher.

Allegations that Iran, along with Libya, was arming the IRA then followed.

But some bright revolutionary spark here also thought what better place to
honour Sands than the road behind the British embassy, then called Winston
Churchill Street. The great imperialist, after all, was hardly suited for a
place on the Islamic republic's new roadmap.

Two decades on, British ties with Iran have improved markedly, while
British Prime Minister Tony Blair is pressing on with a peace process in
Northern Ireland that has seen IRA prisoners who once served alongside the
hunger strikers amnestied.

British diplomats, therefore, say they feel it's time for the street name
to be changed, especially in a period where a global war against all things
"terrorist" means that such honours no longer even amuse.

During the third of five trips to Iran by Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack
Straw over the course of the past two years, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal
Kharazi was politely and discreetly nudged to do the necessary, according
to a British Foreign Office official accompanying Straw and Iranian foreign
ministry sources.

After all, as one British official once famously pointed out, how would
Iran like it if its London embassy address were "Shah Pahlavi Avenue"?

Britain may find the street name embarrassing, but its diplomats are
generally extremely cautious not to label Sands a terrorist, given the
contentious nature of Irish history.

"There are probably more important things to worry about, and it is not on
the top of our list of priorities," asserted Andrew Dunn, a British
diplomat and embassy spokesman in Tehran.

All he would acknowledge is that "if asked by the Iranians if we wanted it
changed, we would probably reply yes".

Irish republican historians are at pains to point out that Sands was never
even convicted of what could be classed as an act of terrorism, even though
he was a declared member of the IRA.

Back in 1977, Sands was arrested near the scene of a bombing. At his trial,
the judge acknowledged there was no evidence to pin the crime on him and
the other three men also arrested, so instead sentenced the group to 14
years' imprisonment each for the possession of just one revolver found in
their car.

And pushing the issue too much is also seen as futile, with Iran's Shiite
Muslim clerical regime generally not adept at making polite diplomatic
gestures to foreign powers.

There is now a precedent -- Tehran's municipal council agreed this month to
change the name of a street honouring the Islamist assassin of Egyptian
president Anwar Sadat, which is a hurdle to the restoration of ties between
Cairo and Tehran.

But there is no such pressure to do the same with Bobby Sands Street.

Many Iranians also have something of a soft spot for the hunger striker.
For example, Vice President Mohamed Ali Abtahi -- a jovial and prominent
reformist -- once told AFP he felt Sands was a "great man".

Sands, oddly enough, did have a fair bit in common with Shiite Muslims and
Persians -- a dislike of the English, an extraordinary willingness to
embrace "martyrdom" and a passion for poetry.

In light of that, he is one of just a few non-Muslims honoured with a
street name here.

Diplomats at the embassy of the Republic of Ireland in Tehran admit the
street is something of a tourist attraction for Irish nationals visiting
the 25-year-old Islamic republic, saying it drew large crowds during an
Ireland-Iran World Cup football qualifier in 2001.

In addition, Irish visitors are sometimes greeted at Tehran airport's
passport control with a smile from normally gloomy-faced staff, a raised
clenched fist and the statement: "Bobby Sands, no food. Welcome to Iran".

Britain's ongoing irritation over the matter -- while far from representing
anything close to a diplomatic spat -- must nevertheless be leaving Sands
grinning in his Belfast grave.

" Of course I can be murdered," the hunger striker scrawled in a toilet
paper diary smuggled out of prison before his death. "But I remain what I
am, a political POW, and no one, not even the British, can change that."

Two decades on, however, the fight continues.

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