Adrian Hamilton: Face the facts - Iran is doing nothing wrong

The Iranians feel entitled to resume development on a small scale and under inspection
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Anyone who knows Iran knows two things. One is that there is nothing which excites Iranians as much as getting locked into hard bargaining over something they sense the other party wants. The second is that, of all Middle Eastern countries, Iran is the most nationalistic. Challenge them over what they regard as their sovereign rights and you will get head-on collision.

The international community has managed to get sucked into the former and locked into the latter. There was no need for this. Nor is there any need for the confrontation to spiral out of control now, with dire warnings of referral to the UN security council, the imposition of sanctions and the scarcely veiled threat of military action, if not by the US then Israel.

All this will do is to stiffen the resolve of the Iranians, undermine the authority of the United Nations and offer proof to those within Iran who argue the need for a mightier military to face down a sea of enemies. What it won't do is to get the Iranians to back down on their present course of enriching uranium.

And why shouldn't they? Before President Bush, together with Chirac and Jack Straw and even the Russians, get too sanctimonious and before the international community gets too carried away with implicit threats it is worth asking: just what is it that Iran is doing wrong?.

Tehran's case is that, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is perfectly entitled to pursue an active programme of nuclear power. It is equally entitled, with inspection by the UN, to develop uranium enrichment so long as it is for peaceful purposes.

The US and the European case is not so much that they quarrel with Iran's rights, although they believe that Iran deliberately disguised its uranium enrichment ambitions for years in breach of its treaty obligations. It is Iran's intentions that arouse the outside world's deepest suspicions.

Uranium enrichment can be used for peaceful power purposes or, scaled up, it can be used for nuclear weaponry. Washington, together with its allies on this, Britain, France and Germany, believes that Iran's true purpose is to develop the bomb. Hence it doesn't want it to go down the path of uranium enrichment at all.

The trouble with this is that it is based on fear of intention not on fact. Two years ago, Tehran agreed to suspend all further enrichment activity as a "temporary" goodwill measure while talks with the Europeans proceeded. Those talks came to nothing so the Iranian government feels perfectly entitled to break the seals and resume development on a small scale and under inspection.

The West however, regards this as a clear declaration of intent, proof that Tehran is determined to press ahead for nefarious purposes, despite offers to supply it with enriched fuel via Russia or give it alternative power technologies. If it really just wanted a new energy form (and why should it, given its oil and gas resources) why not accept the uranium from elsewhere? No, say the Iranians. What they want is the full technology of nuclear power. It is what they are entitled to and as a sophisticated technologically-minded society with an eye on the long-term energy future, they have every reason to go after it.

They have no intention, they say, of using it to produce bombs - an anathema under certain religious rulings - but to stop short of the full power cycle would be demeaning and against their national interest.

You can make of this what you will, depending on your your feelings towards the Tehran regime at the moment.

Iran will go down the enrichment route. Of that the international community needs to be clear. It won't accept anything less, certainly not after what it regards as the half-hearted offers of the Europeans to make it give up. It also needs to face up to how little it can do to stop it. Iran is too important an energy supplier to be isolated and too proud to be bullied. Invade them and you will create a xenophobic uprising, drive them into a corner and they will double their efforts to gain military might.

The international community has a lever in that Iran is prepared for stringent inspections to make sure of its peaceful purposes. It should pursue that control for all it is worth. At the same time we should do what we should have done from the start, and have so singularly failed to do at the urgings of Washington and Jerusalem, and that is to treat it as a regional power of individual strength and worth. You may not like the regime (indeed it is pretty dislikeable) but Iran is a player in the Middle East. And in the wreckage of President Bush's wider Iraq policy, it's time we engaged with it as such.