Straw's 'negotiated solution' distances Britain from hawks

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Just two months ago, after the triumphant re-election of President Bush, Jack Straw made it clear it was "inconceivable" that America would bomb Iran.

Just two months ago, after the triumphant re-election of President Bush, Jack Straw made it clear it was "inconceivable" that America would bomb Iran.

Yesterday, with the latest edition of The New Yorker predicting that the Bush administration intended to do just that, the Foreign Secretary firmly distanced the Government from any such plan by insisting that a "negotiated solution" remained the preferred option for Britain.

His remarks were contained in a compendium of documents distributed to MPs, summarising the two-year nuclear standoff with Iran. According to a Foreign Office spokesman, the timing of the document's distribution had nothing to do with the bellicose noises from Washington.

"A negotiated solution, in which both sides have a feeling of ownership, is in the best interests of Iran and of the international community," said Mr Straw in the preface. "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."

Britain has made no secret of disagreeing with the US over the strategic approach towards Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme. Mr Straw said in November, as speculation rose that Mr Bush might launch military strikes on Iran after his re-election: "I don't see any circumstances in which military action would be justified against Iran, full stop." Yesterday, the Foreign Office spokesman said it was "inconceivable that the UK would support such a policy, were such a policy to exist."

The Government has joined France and Germany in trying to coax Iran into freezing its nuclear programme in return for trade benefits. Despite frustrating setbacks since a landmark agreement in October 2003, the European troika has tried to keep a dialogue going. Britain fears sabre-rattling could be counter-productive by pushing the mullahs further along the road to producing a nuclear weapon.

But this strategy so far only provides for sanctions against Iran if it is reported to the UN Security Council for failing to comply with its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency. And there, Britain is well aware that there is no appetite among other veto-wielding states, such as Russia and China, to order sanctions on Iran.

Iran maintains it is engaged in a peaceful nuclear programme, and that it is entitled to pursue this under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

One nuclear specialist said the Government may be keen to publicise differences with the US as it prepares for the NPT review in May.