Target Iran

Rice talks language of diplomacy - but it has alarming echoes; On Iraq `We're going to seek a peaceful solution to this. We think one is possible' 20 October 2002; On Iran `The question [of a military strike] is simply not on the agenda at this point in time. We have diplomatic means to do this' Yesterday
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The Independent Online
SHE REFUSED to utter the words "regime change". She declined to be drawn on future military adventures. But what the new US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, did say yesterday in London was that the Iranians' "behaviour, internally and externally, is out of step with the direction and desires of the international community".

Asked directly whether the US planned an attack on Iran, Ms Rice said: "The question is simply not on the agenda at this point in time. We have diplomatic missions to do this." It was an answer that had a familiar ring.

Over the coming week, Ms Rice will encounter many who recall hearing such assurances in the recent past. Labour MPs who opposed the war in Iraq said last night that the assurances by Ms Rice were "unconvincing" and they remained deeply concerned that Mr Blair will be dragged into a second Middle East conflict by the Bush administration. "Blair has already announced he is going. We have no sanction against Blair if he goes to war alongside Bush again," said Peter Kilfoyle, the former defence minister. "We had the same assurances before they went to war against Iraq."

The outcome of the Iraqi elections appears to be making matters worse not better. Religious parties, backed and financed by Tehran, are sweeping the board in Iraq's first free elections. The first count showed that the United Iraqi Alliance, the largely Shia coalition of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has won more than two-thirds of the 3.3 million votes counted so far.

A secular democracy is not about to be formed in Iraq. Even the interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, who Washington hoped would hold the balance of power, saw his coalition trounced. The theocratic regime in Iran not the neo-conservatives of Washington

now appear to hold the keys to Iraq's future. For Ms Rice the problem of Iran has become more urgent than ever.

With the US military bogged down in Iraq and no exit strategy in sight, Washington faces an acute dilemma: how to bring about regime change in Tehran, without repeating the mistakes of Iraq. The Rice solution for now, is to seek an old-fashioned coalition with Old Europe.

It was a day of implicit, rather than explicit threats. There was little evidence of last week's euphoria. Instead the focus both for her and her hosts was Iran and its race to acquire the nuclear bomb that Saddam Hussein, infamously never possessed. Ms Rice criticised the "unelected mullahs" who hold power in Iran and described Tehran's human rights behaviour as loathsome. The prospect of a nuclear Iran was "deeply destabilising" for the region. She said Britain and the US shared a "unity of purpose" on the dangers posed by Iran.

Next, in Berlin, it was German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, one of the staunchest opponents of the Iraq war, who said the two agreed "that [Iran] must not have the potential of a nuclear weapon whatsoever."

Confrontation is undoubtedly looming. Back in Washington overt (or covert) action is already being taken to help Iranian reformers and undermine the religious regime from within

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who has led British pressure on the White House to allow diplomacy to work on Iran, revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency, had found fresh evidence that the Iranians were not complying with an order to suspend its nuclear programme.

Yet the limits of US power are manifest. Military action, is all but unthinkable for the time being. The overstretched US military has its hands more than full in Iraq. If the US acted, moreover, it would do so alone. Even Britain has made clear it would not join a "preventive" strike against Iran.

Air or commando raids are more feasible - but so scattered are Iran's nuclear sites that it would be very hard to destroy the programme conclusively. And if the US did take such action, Iran would surely step up support for anti-US terror, and stir up more trouble in Iraq.

As America chooses the means to its end of regime change, Iran remains the prime target for Washington.

In his inauguration speech, President Bush denounced Iran as "an outpost of tyranny". But in the wake of the Iraqi elections and an the emergence of a so-called Shia crescent of countries linking Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria, the mullahs' regime in Tehran looks less of an outpost and more a capital of a remade map of the Middle East.