It is interesting to see that Iran is moving up the news agenda, although the coverage today seems to be concentrated in what might be called the "right wing" press – the Sunday Telegraph and The Sunday Times. As far as I can see, neither the Observer nor the Independent are looking in detail at the issue today.
Centre-stage is The Sunday Times, which runs a front page story, running over into page, with the headline "Straw snubs US hawks on Iran".
Written by Bavid Cracknell, and Tony Allen-Mills in Washington, these two reporters reveal that Jack Straw has "drawn up a dossier putting the case against a military attack on Iran amid fears that President George W Bush’s administration may seek Britain’s backing for a new conflict."
Straw and his officials, we are told, fear that hawks in Washington will talk the American president into a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, just as they persuaded him to go to war in Iraq.
The foreign secretary has thus produced a 200-page dossier that rules out military action and makes the case for a "negotiated solution" to curbing the ayatollahs’ nuclear ambitions amid increasingly bellicose noises from Washington.
Apparently pursuing the line consistently taken by the UK, the document says a peaceful solution led by Britain, France and Germany is "in the best interests of Iran and the international community". It refers to "safeguarding Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology".
Yet, in his preface to the dossier, Straw admits that Iran’s compliance with international inspectors is "mixed and incomplete". He writes, in what must be one of the understatements of the century: "There are a number of issues which have still to be fully resolved. The dossier continues:
A negotiated solution, in which both sides have a feeling of ownership, is in the best interests of Iran and of the international community. It gives stronger guarantees of future behaviour than an imposed solution and is more likely to build the long-term confidence and trust which can enable the broader relationship to develop positively.
Taking a broader perspective is Edward Luttwak, senior fellow in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington. He writes an op-ed in The Sunday Telegraph headed: "The scariest prospect of all: Iran with the bomb".
We have worked hard to achieve agreement with Iran on the way in which this issue is handled, to give the international community the reassurance we seek while safeguarding Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology."
That is essentially the issue. Straw can prance and posture with the best of them, but the concerns we all have to face is whether Iran is really set on building a nuclear arsenal. Few doubt that this is the case and for a better analysis of the situation I have yet to see a better piece than that written by Amir Taheri for Arab News.
Luttwak brings us up to date, suggesting that there "are certainly good reasons for believing that the Bush administration is considering the possibility of air strikes."
Iran, he writes, is ruled by fiercely reactionary clerics under the "supreme guide" Ayatollah Khameini. Between them, they have reduced the elected civilian government of President Khatami to almost total impotence. Khameini is pushing Iran down a more radically fundamentalist path than even Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic revolution in Iran, ever contemplated.
None of this would matter, adds Luttwak, if Ayatollah Khameini wasn't also determined to acquire a nuclear arsenal. Some members of the government have even boasted how they would use them: to destroy Israel. "Islam could survive the retaliation," they insist, "but Israel would be gone forever." The thought of ayatollahs with nuclear bombs should terrify everyone – especially in Europe, because the Iranians could soon put those bombs on the top of rockets that could reach European capitals. He continues:
The French, the Germans and the British have been trying to use diplomacy to persuade the Iranians to stop their nuclear programme. They have offered Iran technological help (building non-nuclear power plants, for example) if only it will abandon its project to build a bomb and agree to unannounced, on-site inspections from the IAEA. Khameini's men have indignantly responded that it would be "against our principles" to acquire a nuclear bomb – but refuse to agree to unannounced inspections or to allow the IAEA to enter their "research reactor" at Parchim near Teheran.
Unless European diplomacy obtains real guarantees from Iran, Luttwak concludes, Bush will soon have to decide to do to Iran what the Israelis did to Iraq. He adds that which we have observed in one of our previous Blogs, that nuclear- armed ayatollahs are unacceptable in Europe, America and Israel. Even the clerics, in their calmer and more rational moments, must know that accepting rewards for freezing Iran's nuclear programme is a better deal than getting bombed.
In fact, the Iranians already have a plant which will produce weapons-grade uranium under construction at Natanz. They have a heavy water facility, a large "nuclear technology centre" at Isfahan, and another at Parchim. The mullahs are still negotiating a deal with the Europeans to end their nuclear programme, but the bellicose rhetoric from America is probably all that keeps them talking.
If Iran is to be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, effective diplomatic or military action will have to come soon. Production facilities can be bombed but once actual weapons are assembled, locating and destroying them will become next to impossible. And Iran will then be in a position to threaten not just Israel, but all of our oil-producing Arab allies.
When the Israelis bombed Saddam Hussein's nuclear research centre at Osirak in 1981, they were universally condemned. The Americans showed their displeasure by cancelling arms sales. But the raid on Osirak prevented Saddam from acquiring a nuclear arsenal, a fact that the Americans and the world fully recognised when weapons inspectors went into Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war. If Saddam had had nuclear weapons in 1991, it would have been impossible to dislodge him from Kuwait. Able to intimidate Saudi Arabia, he would have had decisive power over Middle East oil. That propsect persuaded America, and most of the world, that Israel had done the right thing in bombing Osirak in 1981.
It was The Daily Telegraph back in November, however, that observed that there "has always been something suspect about European mediation over Iran's nuclear programme." The newspaper did not deny that the EU trio (Britain, France and Germany) was sincere in wishing to prevent Teheran from acquiring nuclear arms but, as are many of us, it was concerned about the ineffectiveness of the initiative.
Now with Straw seeking actively to distance himself from the US over the issue – and not forgetting Straw's enthusiasm for lifting the arms embargo on China, which is in turn arming Iran - we are perhaps seeing a new stage in this drama that could lead to an even greater divide between the US and the UK, with Blair's government moving still further into the "European camp".