"If you are in a hole, stop digging," was Denis Healey's famous political injunction. Yet continuing to dig furiously is exactly what the West is doing in the escalating nuclear confrontation with Iran. And not just in that crisis. With Hamas in Palestine and the Shia government in Iraq, we are engaged in pressure tactics and plain bullying. And it isn't working.
We tell the Iranians that they must not start uranium enrichment or they will face UN sanctions, if not American bombs, and they announce that they have not only gone ahead but successfully begun the process. The EU tells Hamas that it will stop aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it recognises Israel and they ignore the demand and accept the consequences. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, flies to Baghdad with the US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, to say that the interim Prime Minister must step down and the majority Shia party replace him with someone acceptable to the Sunni, and nothing happens.
"For heaven's sake stop it," one wants to scream. "Can't you see it's getting us nowhere." But on we go, setting a deadline for UN Security Council action on Iran when we know that neither China nor Russia will vote for punitive action. Threatening military action which could tear the allies apart will only serve to unite the Iranians against us.
We withdraw aid to the Palestinian Authority knowing that Hamas is not going to make the concessions we demand of it. And we push for a different leadership in Iraq while perfectly aware of the fact that a change of names will not bring the country under any more control than it is at present.
That is the worst of it. Speak to almost any of the officials involved in any of these talks, and you will find hardly one who privately believes that present policy is leading anywhere. Their political masters know all too well they are in a cul-de-sac, but they go blindly on because they can't think how to turn around.
Yet turning round needn't be that difficult nor are solutions impossible to envisage. Take Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology. You can have what dark suspicions you like about Tehran's intentions as far as military applications are concerned. Personally, I believe they want possession of the technology but not the weaponry, but there's no hard evidence one way or another. Present policy, however, seems to be based on the assumption that the Iranians are up to no good, that they are now led by a dangerous fanatic, are a menace to their neighbours and must be forced by diplomatic pressure or the threat of military action into stopping any form of activity that might conceivably lead to the development of the nuclear bomb.
Unsurprisingly, this is not an approach that has had much success with the Iranians, who point out, first that they are perfectly entitled under the Non-proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium provided that it is for peaceful purposes and that, second, they did stop enrichment for three years only to fail to gain any major concessions from the West. They want to develop the full nuclear cycle. They have a right to do so. And now they have done so (on a very provisional basis it should be added). The western reaction, in their eyes, is anti-Iranian prejudice and hypocrisy - a perception which is hard to fault.
The problem with present western policy is that it addresses none of these concerns. Instead, it attempts to bludgeon Tehran into submission, while casting its motives and its leadership in the worst possible light. That is to misunderstand the country's policy and underestimate its determination.
The new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is certainly no help to the Iranian cause with his rhetoric. But what the West needs to comprehend is that he was elected and that his nationalistic reiteration of Iran's right to nuclear technology is a popular one. All President Bush's threatening statements about bringing about a popular revolt in Iran against a theocratic regime just produces the opposite result.
Nor is Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology a dangerous whim of its new president. The government decided to press ahead with uranium enrichment before Ahmadinejad (a wild card at the time without establishment support) was elected and after the previous president, the liberal Mohammad Khatami, had failed to gain anything significant from either Europe or more particularly the US by agreeing to cease enrichment activity. Nuclear power had become a point of principle with Tehran but then so was Iran's demand to be taken seriously as a major power in the region with interests of its own.
It's too late to turn the clock back on enrichment now. But the production of weapons-grade plutonium - even if they want it - is still some way off. Even if you don't trust Iranian motives, there is no reason not to pursue a diplomatic course that recognises their legitimate rights and tests their intentions. Iran, unlike North Korea (which is being treated quite differently by Washington and the Europeans), has not walked away from the Non-proliferation Treaty. Under it, the International Atomic Energy Agency can insist on the right of inspection and discovery.
There is no reason at this stage not to take seriously Tehran's expressed desire for a security and economic accommodation with the West. Indeed, having gained the domestic political acclaim of enriching uranium in small part, Iran may find it easier to deal with the West. Prince Hassan of Jordan has suggested a security conference covering the whole region, keeping out nuclear weapons and meeting the concerns of some of Iran's Arab neighbours about its ambitions. Iraq has given Iran a powerful position in the Middle East, through its Shia and historic connections. The art of diplomacy is surely to recognise and cope with this, not to try to deny it?
The same could be said of coping with Iraq. In the end there are limits to how far the West can influence events within that country. Jack Straw's retort in Baghdad to someone suggesting that he was interfering in their internal affairs - "we were the ones who liberated them, remember" - was both crass and indicative of a mindset that will simply produce the opposite effect intended. But the outside world does have a legitimate interest in preventing the troubles inside Iraq unsettling regions nearby.
If Britain really wants to do some good it should be promoting a UN-led conference of Iraq's neighbours which would lock in secular Turkey, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Baathist Syria and Shia Iran in a security pact. It would mean acknowledging the role of Iran and Syria, of course , still an anathema to Washington, but it could do wonders for the region.
Given the bitter history and the fierce divisions within the Middle East, there is no guarantee that such diplomacy would work. But it's surely better than going on digging as we are now.Reuse content