The relationship between the United States and Iran has long been poisonous (the US economic boycott is in its 25th year), but it now further threatens the wider peace. White House rhetoric may have throttled back from implicit threats of military intervention (probably due to overstretch and their own bodybag sensitivity) but that may not last. George Bush's new United Nations envoy, gunslinging John Bolton, displayed in his BBC Newsnight interview on Friday an unnerving oversimplification in his assessments and inveighed, with no apparent irony, against Iran's "intimidation of its region".
The truth is that, mainly because of oil and its strategic situation, Iran has long been a pawn on the British, and now the American, geopolitical chessboard.
Accordingly, in 1953 the CIA and MI5 organised the overthrow of the popular and progressive Dr Mohammed Mossadeq, who had nationalised his country's oil, and was considered a disposable impediment. Mossadeq's removal held back evolutionary reform and indirectly led to the 1979 revolution which overthrew the Shah.
The violent fundamentalism which ensued, together with hostage-taking, encouraged the Americans and British to take a second cynical decision, namely to support Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran in 1980, and to supply him with arms, including gas. By 1988 the Iranians had suffered human losses comparable with ours in the First World War.
I vividly remember, having accepted late-night hospitality from an Isfahani family, being gently questioned the next morning by a son of the family, maimed in that war, as to why we had supported their murderous invader. As a student visitor in 1961, I also remember my brushes with Savak, the Shah's brutal and omnipresent security police. The notion that the bad human rights failings of Iran are of post-1979 creation is misguided, as is nostalgia for the "good old days" of the dashing, autocratic Shah and his Westernised cronies. It seemed inconceivable that, armed to the hilt by the West, he could stumble, let alone fall.
But Western intelligence has consistently misread lower-class opinion in class-ridden Iran. Most of the north Tehran élite fled in the aftermath of the revolution, though many, including friends of mine, have since returned. But the Persian diaspora, particularly in the US, still exerts a disproportionate influence and extremists support various dissident groups which peddle a one-eyed picture of Iran.
In the summer, the resounding victory of Dr Mahmut Ahmadinejad, the first non-clerical President of Iran, came as another shock. Predictably there was an instant attempt to write him off, with claims (unsubstantiated) of revolutionary crimes. And, despite a voter turn-out well in excess of our own, the legitimacy of the result has been questioned by, inter alia, US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
It could be that, in time, the devout and conservative Dr Ahmadinejad will fulfil some of the dire predictions made about him, but the refusal to give this relatively unknown elected leader a chance says much about the ingrained malignity of Iran's detractors.
That is ironical. He is a self-made man with a good doctorate in engineering, who lives in modest circumstances and has a reputation for incorruptibility. The fact, too, that he fought a secular campaign, concentrating on living standards, jobs and social equity, should give pause to those anxious to consign him to George Bush's Axis of Evil or, indeed, to cast him, as a newspaper article written by a leading academic did, as the new Stalin. Since his election, it has been largely "business as usual", with his incomplete cabinet comprising a coalition of interests and experience. Despite burgeoning links to the East, Tehran still welcomes trade with Europe and the UK.
The dominant public impression of Iran is of a monolithic, repressive, extreme society. If one is judging by the highest Western standards, there is some truth in that - yet it is very far from the whole picture, as well as devoid of historical, religious or regional context. Iranians, in turn, may retort that the worst of the West is scarcely a pretty picture. Those who have never been there (and few have) can scarcely imagine how cultured, talented, and vibrant a people they are. Over 15 per cent of them go to universities, more than half being women. They are also disputatious and passionate, which does not make for political, or religious, tranquillity. Their Byzantine constitution intentionally makes change very difficult.
In the bazaars of south Tehran, you can bet they will be judging "coalition" performance in Iraq with bemusement and contempt. Devourers, as they are, of a surprisingly diverse press, they will balance charges of Iranian interference and insurgency in Iraq against the deaths of thousands of fellow Shias, and will ask by what morality the Great Insurgents, righteously loosing off their terrorising arsenals, dare to criticise them.
With nuclear arms on their eastern flank (Pakistan), US bases on their western and northern flanks, and nuclear arms to the south-west (Israel, which is not even party to the Non Proliferation Treaty), the same sense of Western hypocrisy will no doubt pervade discussion of their own nuclear predicament. Can one wonder at their insecurity?
But Iran is its own worst enemy. Its refusal even to recognise Israel is futile and counter-productive to its influence and credibility, as were its long years of covert nuclear research. Then there is the tortuous nuclear stand-off with Britain, Germany and France, though the wrongs there are not all on their side, as the conciliatory stance of the IAEA chief, Dr ElBaradei, intimates.
The thousands visiting the exhibition at the British Museum - "The Forgotten Empire", about Persian world dominance between 550 BC and 330 BC - will come away stunned and may find it difficult to correlate with what they read of Iran today. Yet it is still the same proud, independent country, which will not bow the knee to anyone.
It is also in the midst of a rapid, painful and very particular evolution. A land where, contrary to what one is led to believe, democracy and freedom of expression have made big strides since the 1980s; where there is a real (though far from perfect) parliamentary system where, for example, the new President is far from controlling the Majlis (legislature); and where women flourish in all walks of life (one has just been made a vice-president) albeit that they go swathed in black in public. Although a country of, by our traditions, cruel Sharia law, it is nonetheless a place full of humour, spirituality and aesthetic depth. Where in the West does one find the main thoroughfares and squares named after poets?
The British government has hitherto pursued a strong policy of engagement, admirably at odds with the White House, a stance one hopes Tony Blair maintained in talks with Condoleezza Rice yesterday. Despite the nuclear difficulties, we must not rush to judgement on the new regime. Much hangs on it.
The writer is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of LordsReuse content