Israel joined the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in ratcheting up the pressure on Iran last night, calling for "crippling" sanctions on Tehran to force it to give up its nuclear programme. Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said a nuclear-armed Iran would trigger an arms race in the Middle East and ultimately pose a threat to the entire world.
The warning came hours after Mr Hague had claimed that Iran's nuclear ambitions could plunge the Middle East into "a new Cold War". Mr Hague told The Daily Telegraph: "If [the Iranians] obtain nuclear weapons capability, other nations across the Middle East will want to develop nuclear weapons," leading to "the most serious round of nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons were invented".
Tensions in the Middle East are already running high, with Israel accusing Iran of masterminding attacks on its embassies. Iran denies the allegations and blames Israel and the United States for assassinating several Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years.
Mr Barak added to the tensions yesterday, when he expressed frustration that four rounds of UN sanctions had failed to halt Iran's uranium enrichment programme. On a visit to Tokyo, he said: "We have to [speed up] imposing sanctions and make them crippling to such an extent that the leadership ... will be compelled to sit down and ask themselves 'are we ready to pay the price of isolation from most, if not all, of the world?'"
On Wednesday, Iran unveiled new developments in its nuclear programme, declaring it had used domestically made nuclear fuel in a reactor for the first time. Yesterday, after extensive naval manoeuvres in the region, Iranian warships entered the Mediterranean for only the second time since the 1979 revolution.
But experts urged governments last night to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to lead the investigations. Sir Richard Dalton, a former UK ambassador to Iran, said: "It is wrong to say that Iran is rushing towards having a nuclear weapon.
"But," he added, "it is right that the IAEA should press Iran on behalf of the international community to answer fully questions about what it has been up to in the past and what it may still be doing in the present." The shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, said: "Instead of raising the rhetoric, the Government should be focused on redoubling their efforts to increase the diplomatic pressure on Iran and find a peaceful solution to the issue."
On Friday, US and European Union leaders were optimistic about resuming talks with Iran. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said a letter from Iran to the US and its allies was "one we have been waiting for".
Talks between Iran and six world powers – the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – on Tehran's nuclear programme collapsed a year ago. In recent months, Western countries have stepped up pressure on Iran over the nuclear issue, with the EU and US both introducing wide-ranging sanctions on the country. The US President, Barack Obama, emphasised this month that Israel and the US were working in "unison" to counter Iran.
Mr Hague told the Telegraph that Britain has urged Israel not to strike. He said: "We support a twin-track strategy of sanctions... and negotiations," adding that a military attack would have "enormous downsides."