Rice talks language of diplomacy - but it has alarming echoes

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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 Condoleezza Rice, the new US Secretary of State, did say yesterday in London was that Iranian "behaviour, internally and externally, is out of step with the direction and desires of the international community".

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

She refused to utter the words "regime change". She declined to be drawn on future military adventures. But what Condoleezza Rice, the new US Secretary of State, did say yesterday in London was that Iranian "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 Tony 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 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 Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, who Washington hoped would hold the balance of power, saw his coalition trounced. The theocrats of 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.

The focus 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.

Ms Rice's next stop was Berlin, where Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, one of the staunchest opponents of the Iraq war, agreed "that [Iran] must not have the potential of a nuclear weapon whatsoever".

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who has led British pressure on the White House to allow diplomacy to work, 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. The overstretched US military has its hands more than full in Iraq. If the US acted, moreover, it would do so alone.

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

In Washington, overt (or covert) action is already being taken to help Iranian reformers.

Ms Rice said after her talks: "Let me state quite clearly what we hope to achieve concerning the Iranian regime. We have complete unity of purpose on a number of areas. First of all that Iran engages in activities that are destabilising to the region, particularly when it comes to support for terrorism.

"Secondly we are completely united in our view that Iran should not use the cover of civilian nuclear development to sustain a programme that could lead to a nuclear weapon.

"The Iranians ought to take the opportunity that's being presented to them to show that they are living up to their international obligations.

"Thirdly we are united in our view that the Iranian regime should have transparent relations with its neighbours in Afghanistan and Iraq.Fourthly we have all been concerned about the abysmal human rights record of the Iranian regime."

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