Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Editorial: Diplomacy not nukes key to Iran

The White House is understandably frustrated that its attempts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions are being undone. Even United Nations sanctions are no longer certain, given the reservations of Russia and China. There is no clear international strategy to gain Tehran's co-operation, a shortcoming that is encouraging Iranian belligerence. Almost every week, a new addition to its military hardware is announced.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the United States would consider a military strike to prevent Iran developing its own atomic warheads. Or that this, because of America's commitment in Iraq, would have to take the form of a missile attack against Iran's main centrifuge plant at Natanz. What is startling is that the Bush Administration proposes to use nuclear weapons. And that this has become the subject of detailed operational planning. "Bunker buster" tactical nuclear weapons are, it has decided, the only guaranteed means of destruction.

The best that can be said of this approach is that it has a certain logic from an intelligence perspective. Unlike the situation before the invasion of Iraq, there is no disagreement over Iran's ambitions and the threat they pose. Western intelligence agencies are certain Tehran is trying to develop atomic weapons. They do not accept the view that its interest lies only in nuclear energy. There, however, any rationale for a nuclear attack ends.

The Bush Administration, as in Iraq, appears to have no comprehension of the consequences. It imagines an assault would be humiliating for Iran's leaders, and the catalyst for "regime change" through a public uprising. That is risible. Far more likely, Iranians, not to speak of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, would be incensed. Direct Iranian intervention in the Shia region of southern Iraq would be merely the first vestige of that anger.

An awareness of the potential consequences, not to speak of the enormity of using nuclear weapons, means the US would struggle to gain any international backing. Even Britain, a faithful ally in Iraq, is appalled. Its Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has called the nuclear plan "completely nuts". The US people will surely think the same. Iraq offered a graphic lesson in the consequences of braggadocio. A new poll shows just 36 per cent of Americans approve of President George W. Bush's job performance.

The White House has, in fact, only one valid option. It must pursue a diplomatic solution, no matter how much Iran's sabre-rattling annoys and how great the impulse to squash its nuclear ambitions before they can reach fruition. And in this situation, carrots, not sticks, offer the strongest potential. The overriding concern must be to ensure the international community retains an overview of the Iranians' nuclear activities through the presence on the ground of the United Nations watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That may mean Tehran's right to a civilian nuclear energy programme must be accepted. The US conceded that right to North Korea last year as part of the framing of a fragile pact. There is also merit in a Russian proposal that would see Iran using enriched uranium supplied and controlled by an existing nuclear nation. Compromises of this sort will have to be made to gain Iranian co-operation.

President Bush, it seems, is now much concerned with his legacy. He believes history will treat him kindly if he has the courage to "save" Iran though a nuclear attack. The perversity, and unacceptability, of such a course must be impressed upon him by the international community. As must the fact that history will look most kindly on the orchestrator of a settlement that brings Tehran back from the nuclear-weapons brink.

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