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Iran seeks friends to fight sanctions

World Focus

Ash everywhere else but mushroom clouds over Tehran. Huge poster images of the radioactive horror rising over Hiroshima in 1945 greeted delegates at an international conference on nuclear disarmament which ended in Tehran last night.

Pictures of Japanese children dying in agony from their burns reinforced the message from Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the Supreme Leader, and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conference host, that America was the world's "only atomic criminal", and Iran abhorred the immorality of such weapons.

The two-day meeting was dismissed by Washington and London as both a PR stunt, aimed at distracting from the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions, and a childish attempt to rival Barack Obama's 47-nation conference on nuclear disarmament last week from which Iran and North Korea were barred.

The Tehran event was never going to win prizes for subtlety or for absence of rhetoric or for big-name attendees. Such heavyweights as Turkmenistan, Guinea-Conakry and Swaziland were on the guest list. Obviously the US, now trying to impose the most punitive UN sanctions yet on Iran, was not. All 27 members of the European Union snubbed the conference.

But Iran, with some support from developing countries tired of the double standards, they claim (with some justification), that the West maintains, is playing a long and possibly shrewd diplomatic game. Permanent UN Security Council members Russia and China were represented, albeit at the level of an anonymous diplomat in China's case. So were non-permanent Security Council members including Uganda, Turkey and Lebanon, all of whom are openly opposed to sanctions. There was scant reassurance for Iran that China or Russia might not eventually go along with the US over sanctions.

Nevertheless, the Tehran gathering may have given Iran's leaders reason for hope that they can muster a sizeable body of sympathy, and votes, for a strategy that, in effect, turns the tables on the West. The meeting ended last night with calls for a complete overhaul of the 40 year old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and for Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal to be brought under a UN inspection regime.

This is potentially significant: next month 200 nations will gather in New York to review the NPT. The Iranian strategy will be to force a treaty overhaul which spells out the rights of signatories to run civilian nuclear programmes including the right to enrich uranium, while questioning the failure of the US, France and Britain, to disarm fully.

Setting the terms of the debate ahead of the NPT review has an obvious strategic value. If Iran can at least limit its international isolation, it may ultimately see off the Obama sanctions threat while doing little to allay the fears of those who claim Iran is determined to acquire an atomic weapon. No wonder Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister, was able to declare last night: "This is a source of hope."

Reports in the US yesterday revealed that Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, has admitted in a secret memo that America has no Plan B if efforts to impose tough sanctions on Iran fail. Washington and the chancelleries of Europe may soon have to start contemplating a policy of containing, rather than confronting a nuclear-capable Iran.