The nuclear brinkmanship between Iran and the West is expected to step up a gear amid predictions that Tehran is about to announce that it has begun industrial-scale production of enriched uranium.
Iran has started installing about 3,000 centrifuges, the machines that can turn uranium into fuel for nuclear reactors or bombs, at a huge plant in Natanz - a prime target if the US or Israel conclude that there is no other way to stop Iran acquiring the bomb.
For all Iran's bluster, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes that technological setbacks mean it is still two or three years before Iran may have weapons capability. But fear of imminent bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities is so strong that Robert Gates, the new US Defence Secretary, said at the weekend: "We are not planning for a war with Iran."
Today a newly formed British alliance spells out the disastrous consequences of military action against Iran while urging greater engagement with Tehran to avert "global catastrophe".
"We need a new diplomatic push at a time when the drumbeat of war is getting louder," said Brendan Cox, a spokesman for Crisis Action which has co-ordinated publication of a new report backed by Oxfam, the Muslim Council of Britain and other faith groups, trade unionists and a leading think-tank.
"Military action has to be the last resort," said Sir Richard Dalton, a supporter of the initiative who has spent the past four years as Britain's ambassador to Iran. He said there was still time for negotiations. "We have a period of months to build up diplomacy, even though it is not certain to succeed."
Sir Richard, and other senior European diplomats, sought to play down suggestions that the Bush administration is dusting off plans for military action against Iran, which has failed to heed UN demands to halt its uranium enrichment programme.
Tensions have risen in recent days after the US dispatched a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf and accused Iranian operatives of supplying weaponry to kill US troops in Iraq.
In its report, Time To Talk, the new coalition puts the case for a negotiated solution with Iran, including direct talks between Iran and the US. It also calls for a compromise on the suspension of uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiation, and further exploration of a "grand bargain" offered by the EU to Iran last year which could be broadened to include security guarantees between Israel, Iran and the US.
"The consequences of military action against Iran are not only unpalatable, they are unthinkable. Even according to the worst estimates, Iran is still years away from having a nuclear weapon. There is still time to talk and the Prime Minister must make sure our allies use it," said Stephen Twigg, director of the Foreign Policy Centre.
With Israel framing Iran's nuclear programme as an "existential threat" to that country, and the Iranians only months away from reaching the so-called "point of no return" on mastering the technology needed to produce a nuclear bomb, this year is critical for diplomacy to succeed. Asked whether the diplomatic timeline was now out of step with Iran's progress on its nuclear programme, Sir Richard said: "I don't think the timeline has shrunk to the point where there is no room for diplomacy. It should be allowed to take its course."
European diplomats say that the American "sabre rattling" should be seen as a means of increasing the pressure on Iran to comply with the UN demands which are now being enforced by global economic sanctions. " It's a show of force. The Americans want to demonstrate that they are not weak and have not disappeared from the region," said one.
Mr Cox said the coalition had learnt the lessons of the Iraq war, and wanted to raise public awareness of the issues well before the "endgame" looms. The report warns that the consequences of military action, which would cause significant civilian casualties, would destabilise the Middle East and severely undermine hopes for stability in Iraq. It argues that the position of hardliners in Iran would be bolstered while the chances of reform within Iran would be set back at a time when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in political difficulties because of his failure to deliver on economic policies.
It predicts that other consequences of bombing would include rising oil prices and a threat of serious environmental contamination. And, a senior European diplomat said, it would be unlikely to halt Iran's nuclear programme, only delay it.Reuse content