Through one of those accidents of protocol Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, sat next to his Iranian opposite number at dinner in the international conference on Iraq at Sharm el-Sheikh this week. According to witnesses the two exchanged nothing more than polite phrases.
Which just about says it all. Here we have the two main players in what is - or at any rate is being billed as - the first major confrontation of the second Bush term and what can the two countries say to each other? Precious little, it seems. The US has made clear its belief that Tehran is deceiving everyone about its plans to develop nuclear weapons; Iran says it is doing no more than developing its nuclear power programme for peaceful purposes while the Europeans, through a troika of Britain, Germany and France, are trying to sort out a compromise deal.
Today will see the International Atomic Energy Agency say that it believes Tehran has ceased uranium enrichment but that it can't be certain that it is not up to something in secret and it needs stronger powers of inspection to keep Iran honest. To which the Europeans will nervously say "okay" and the Americans will say "harrumph", they don't believe it.
It's an entirely unproductive and dangerous game of threat and bluff. And an unnecessary one. True, Iran has deceived both the IAEA and the world at large over its uranium reprocessing activities. There is now an element of distrust which won't, and probably shouldn't, dissipate with Iran's agreement to cease temporarily its work whilst broader negotiations with Europe take place. True, too, it is a country whose religious leadership has held back democratic progress and is actually going backwards at the moment as far as human rights and political reform are concerned.
But there are two fundamental facts about this crisis which the West consistently ignores. One is that Iran is, like it or not, a major regional power whose desire to play a role in the Middle East, Iraq, oil politics and Muslim affairs has been constantly thwarted by Washington (and London), who supported Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran and then tried to cut out Iran from any role in occupied Iraq.
Of course there's a flow of goods and people across the Iran-Iraq border and of course there are elements in Iran, religious and otherwise, trying to extend influence amongst Shia groups in Iraq. It would be surprising if there wasn't. But it is very easy to overestimate the real authority of the Indo-European Iranians over the Arabs and to underestimate their desire to take a constructive part in post-war Iraq.
The second point arises from the first. As a regional power constantly confronted by the US and singled out by Israel as its most dangerous enemy, Iran is bound to think about nuclear weaponry. It would be grossly irresponsible of its leadership not to. If Bush or Blair were president of Iran they'd be doing the same thing as Tehran - building up the possibility of a nuclear deterrent on the sly.
It's after all what India, Pakistan, Israel and now North Korea have all done (Nehru did it whilst keeping it secret from his own cabinet) and all have benefited from it. So why not Iran? All the opinion polls suggest that, whatever their feelings about the regime, an overwhelming majority of its population feels the country ought to have nuclear weapons. Most Iranian also feel - a sense never to be underestimated in Middle East politics - that it is pure hypocrisy on the part of the West to allow Israel to have nuclear weaponry and now to say that Iran shouldn't.
The question, of course, is whether Iran has the weapons and, if not, how do you stop them getting them. It would be extremely foolish to believe all its protestations of innocence. But then it would also be quite wrong to condemn Tehran, as many are, solely on the grounds of pursuing uranium enrichment. As a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), there is nothing to stop Iran from enriching uranium so long as it is for peaceful purposes. This may be a fault of the treaty but in asking the Iranians to cease the activity and to allow unusually stringent inspections, the West is asking them to do something it has required of no other signatory.
What then do we offer in return? The Europeans can, and have, offered special trade arrangements and provision of nuclear fuel. But it is a new relationship with the US that Iran would really like and so far cannot have. So we are back to square one. Washington would love to force confrontation, and with it regime change, but has been too sorely burned in Iraq to contemplate direct military action for the moment. The Europeans would like to bring Iran into the fold but cannot offer enough without the Americans and are fearful of being taken for a ride. Iran would like a place on the Middle East high table but is too proud, and too suspicious, to abandon its radicalism and its independence to get it.
Given time there will be change in Iran. The pressure from below is too great. The sadness of the present on-off confrontation is that, by arousing Iranian nationalist feelings and keeping Iran from a constructive role in the region, Washington is merely delaying the moment of change from within.Reuse content