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Adrian Hamilton: Rhetoric against Iran must be cooled for sake of the Middle East

Sanctions have achieved nothing with Burma and should be replaced by dialogue, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said at the start of this week. Sanctions are essential and should be increased on Iran, said President Obama at the end of the week in which it was revealed that the country had established a secret additional site for enriching uranium.

Little could so demonstrate the double standards and the particular distrust with which Iran is treated in international affairs than this contrast. The latest Iranian admission only adds fuel to a furious row of charge and counter-charge that has been busily stoked up by Israel, some of Iran's Arab neighbours and the American right. "Iran's nuclear programme is the most urgent proliferation challenge that the world faces today," said Gordon Brown at the UN on Thursday, adding from Pittsburgh yesterday that there "was no choice but to draw a line in the sand".

Well, even taking into account our Prime Minister's desire to push himself to the forefront of international events to impress voters, this is verging on hyperbole, and will do little to improve the tenor of talks between Iran and the members of the Security Council, plus Germany on 1 October.

The problem is both that Iran is a particularly difficult country to deal with, especially after the re-election of its radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and that its ambitions and its willingness to compromise are so uncertain.

Iran's leaders are adamant on the point that its intentions in developing nuclear technology and uranium enrichment are only for peaceful purposes. It remains a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows it to enrich uranium as fuel. It has also accepted, but not given total free access to inspectors from the UN's Atomic Energy Agency.

The West, led by Washington and spurred on by Israel, suspects that all this is just a ruse behind which Iran is secretly planning a weapons programme and it points to evidence from the IAEA that Iran has hidden various developments from oversight.

The admission by Tehran of its covert enrichment facility – incidentally known to Western intelligence for some time and produced at this point presumably with the purpose of loading the pressure on the talks – is certainly an embarrassment to the regime but doesn't prove the case either way.

Given the way that the US under President Bush and Israel have openly threatened to bomb its facilities, it is not surprising that it should choose to back up its programme with secondary facilities. Nor is it that easy to dismiss the protestations of its leaders that nuclear weapons would be against the religious principles of the Islamic Republic.

Just as Israel has based its security on perceived threats from its Arab neighbours, so Iran's attitude has been forged by the constant assaults of its neighbours and the West. It may well be that it wishes command of the technology of nuclear weapons without actually developing them. Even if it does wish them, however, it is still uncertain how much of a threat they would be. Opinion is divided on how quickly it could develop the processing capacity to convert low-enriched uranium to the levels required for weapons, while the US has just put back its estimates of Iran's ability or interest in long-range missiles well into the future.

The chief concern at the moment must be that, by ramping up the rhetoric at this time, the US and its allies will produce the opposite result intended and harden Iran's resolve to pursue its nuclear programme rather than pressure it to obey UN resolutions demanding a halt to its enrichment.

Adding to the uncertainties are the politics within Iran, now dominated, and largely frozen, by the clash over the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's re-election. Ayatollah Khamenei has so far largely sided with the radicals against the reformers, but the leadership at the top remains divided.

Although the nuclear issue has always been kept under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, the radical forces behind the President, especially the Revolutionary Guard, are bound to seize on this as an excuse for clamping down at home. The Iranians are too clever to let October become a final battle. But they are too proud to give in to threats. Israel, as its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear in his UN address, wants a showdown and wants it quickly. Obama, Sarkozy and Brown seemed yesterday to be going along with him. For the sake of the Middle East, and out of common sense, let us hope they cool the rhetoric and open their minds before the parties get together.

This could be the beginning of a long and open-ended process. But it could also prove the stage for a real international disaster, leading to the worst of everyone's worst fears being realised.