Iran's latest campaign to win friends and influence nations in the Third World has been tripped up here by a traditional trio shunned by Islamic fundamentalists: wine, women and song.
In what a bemused western diplomat described as "the latest innovation in Iranian diplomacy," Iranian President Ali Khamenei, here on a three-day official visit, set off a most undiplomatic row last night by boycotting a state banquet held in his honor.
His main objections were threefold and based on his adherence to strict Shiite Islamic tradition. The Iranians wanted women banquet guests to cover their heads and sit separately from men; they objected to the serving of wine and other spirits, and they objected to musical offerings from a police band.
When the Zimbabwean government turned down the demands in a last-minute showdown, Khamenei and his 40-member entourage refused to emerge from their rooms in the new Harare Sheraton, leaving Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and much of his Cabinet sitting in the banquet hall below.
A witness described the ensuing scene as one of rueful amusement more than anger. A photo in this morning's Herald newspaper showed Mugabe, President Canaan Banana and other dignitaries -- including two women, Banana's wife, Janet, and Cabinet minister Teurai Ropa Nhongo -- sitting at the head table wearing sly grins. After feasting on double portions of a lamb that had been ritually killed according to Shiite code earlier in the day, they went home early. All of the prepared speeches expressing friendship and solidarity with Iran and its people were scrapped.
Instead, Foreign Minister Witness Mangwende issued a statement deploring "this unfortunate development." He said the main sticking point for the Iranians had been the seating of women with men, on which the Zimbabweans were not prepared to bend.
He added: "The major role played by Zimbabwean women during the war of liberation, and the role they continue to play in the overall development of our country, entitle them to an equal status and standing in every respect with their male counterparts -- a principle on which the government of Zimbabwe is unable and indeed unwilling to compromise."
At a hastily called press conference tonight, Khamenei denied that his "nonparticipation" constituted a "boycott" of the banquet. He blamed the incident on a "lack of attention by the protocol chiefs" of both nations to "certain considerations for the participation of a religious dignitary and his companions."
Iran has embarked in recent months on a campaign to win new support from nonwestern nations and Khamenei had visited several Asian nations, Tanzania and Mozambique before arriving here yesterday. The other African nations, which are among the continent's poorest and rely heavily on Iran for their oil supplies, had complied with the Iranian conditions.
Mugabe, who will chair the summit of the Nonaligned Movement here in September, put out the red carpet for the Iranian leader. Thousands of Harare residents were bused to the airport to welcome him. But problems were evident immediately when the president, who is a hojatoleslam, one of the highest leaders in the Shiite faith, refused to shake hands with three female Cabinet members in the official welcoming party.
A Zimbabwean official, speaking not for attribution, said the Iranians had laid down conditions for the visit weeks ago and that "we made it clear before they arrived that we would not comply with Islamic fundamentalism for the three days they were to be here."
The incident was the second time Iran has upset Zimbabwe in recent weeks. In November, an Iranian Embassy newsletter here blasted Mugabe as a "loudmouthed puppet" of South Africa. The embarrassed Iranians quickly recalled the newsletter, sent to government and diplomatic offices here, saying that the article had been reprinted from another publication by mistake by a diplomat not fluent in English.