Ali Ansari: They are marching as to war

The West should make clear that 'regime change' is not an option

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The negotiations are formally at an end. The EU3 initiative has failed. It's official. Byrestarting uranium enrichment, the Iranians have seemingly crossed the Rubicon. The negotiations have been dying for some time. Principle was increasingly obstructing progress. This reflected the reality that, for all the talk of nuclear minutiae, the problem is fundamentally about the absence of trust between the political elites of the US and Iran.

Without recognising this vital context, the unsavoury process we find ourselves in makes little sense. How can it be, for example, that North Korea can declare itself a nuclear weapons power and barely raise an eyebrow in Washington, while Iran breaks some seals on a research centre and becomes a threat to humanity? The problem is not only political but ideological. The former Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, understood this problem. Hence his determination to build bridges, to promote a "dialogue of civilisations", and to provide assistance to the coalition in its war against the Taliban. He was rewarded with the "axis of evil"; a simple sound-bite that reverberated so loudly, it effectively derailed Khatami's foreign policy initiative.

The Europeans also understood the problem. They were particularly anxious that the Cold War which had been simmering between Iran and the US since the 1979 Islamic Revolution could, in the light of 9/11, boil over. The rhetoric in Washington was becoming considerably warmer. A favourite mantra of the neo-cons was that the "boys go to Baghdad and the men go to Tehran". This rhetoric was not lost on the Iranian leaders, and while the US and the "coalition of the willing" mobilised towards Iraq, there were signs that Tehran was willing to be more accommodating.

This flexibility was to be seized upon by the EU3, who, in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, were anxious to prove that "Old Europe" and diplomacy could work. The fundamentals of the deal were: Iran would come clean on its nuclear research, pre-empting formal criticism, and deferring referral to the UN Security Council; in return for which the Europeans would negotiate a permanent agreement by which they would facilitate the development of civil nuclear technology while securing guarantees that Iran would not pursue the weaponisation of that technology.

Key to this was securing Iran's agreement to sign the additional protocol allowing for greater inspections. In broad terms, each side agreed to honour its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The initial signs were positive. In the autumn of 2003, the three EU foreign ministers flew to Tehran to sign the agreement. But Old Europe not only failed to appreciate the depth of distrust among US hawks, it misinterpreted political developments within Iran.

Iran's neo-cons were on the move. In February 2004, they seized the parliament in elections that barely warrant the name. The silence from Europe was deafening, emboldening hardliners and disillusioning reformists. Some European diplomats shrugged off this political sea change by noting that "conservatives" were easier to deal with.

Really? It soon became apparent, that the new parliament, buoyed by developments in Iraq, had no intention of ratifying the additional protocol. Indeed, for some Iranians, Europe's adherence to international law appeared quaint in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Diplomacy rapidly gave way to politics as it became apparent that the "objective guarantees" required actually meant a "permanent" cessation of uranium enrichment. Triumph gave way to tragedy, tragedy to farce; the negotiations in any meaningful sense were over long before the formal declaration last week.

The comforting illusion was shattered by the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mutually reassured ambiguity was no longer an option. Ahmadinejad not only distrusts the West, he is not very fond of what it stands for. The pretence of diplomacy has given way to a battle of wills. In practical terms, the options are not good. Iran's leaders calculate they can weather any sanctions (or, indeed, worse); but to achieve that they must whip up nationalistic fervour - further precluding any accommodation. This, of course, has the added benefit of consolidating a hardline government that would otherwise rest on precarious foundations.

None of the options are attractive. Even the talk of sanctions has sent jitters through the oil market. The West should know its objectives and be clear about how it intends to achieve them. It should make clear that "regime change", on the model of Iraq and Afghanistan, is not an option. It should be united in its presentation and recognise that, in the post-Iraq WMD fiasco, the credibility bar has been raised considerably. The diplomatic option, which is still being publicly endorsed, must be pursued vigorously through private and public channels, and be directed not only towards its own sceptical public but to Iranians everywhere.

Persian nationalism is a powerful tool of mobilisation. The West should avoid fuelling it through reckless generalisations and hyperbole, which will simply alienate all Iranians. Particularly pernicious in this regard has been the loose talk of fomenting ethnic separatism throughout the country.

Above all, procrastination, rhetoric and reaction are options we can ill afford. There can be little doubt that a subtle but significant change of tracks has occurred and the locomotives have begun rolling. In concentrating on the details rather than the broader picture, we risk blundering into a conflict of nobody's choosing. To paraphrase an old soldier: "If nations want to avoid war, they should avoid the pinpricks which precede cannon shots."

Ali M Ansari is Reader in Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Associate Fellow of Chatham House. His latest book is due out this spring

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