In this highly charged atmosphere, yesterday's bald statement of fact from the International Atomic Energy Agency - "they have begun breaking the seals" - resonated with mystical, even apocalyptic, significance. And it is true that a threshold of sorts was crossed. But Iran was violating no international agreements. It was simply ending the undertaking it had entered into voluntarily last year, after months of European diplomacy, to suspend work on its nuclear fuel programme.
Almost drowned by the shrieks of alarm were two further details. Those seals were broken under IAEA supervision, and all of Iran's future nuclear fuel work will be monitored by surveillance cameras. Oh yes, and - by the way - Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not, unlike - say - North Korea, renounced it.
The uncomfortable fact, for all those behaving as though the Islamic Republic of Iran were preparing to conduct a nuclear weapons test tomorrow is that Iran has so far honoured its not inconsiderable commitments under the NPT. Worse, Iran's rationale for pursuing a nuclear fuel programme makes perfect political and strategic sense. The wonder is less that Tehran has gone back on the 10-month old agreement with the Europeans than that President Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, acquiesced in a policy that was so patently against Iran's national interests.
Consider the view from Tehran. Iran has a fast-growing population, high unemployment and more poverty than is commonly associated with an oil-producing economy. It needs a new and cheap source of energy - which nuclear power would offer. Developing nuclear power is entirely permissible under the NPT.
Making a show of defying do-gooding outsiders rarely did any national leader much harm either, especially one as untried as Mr Ahmadinejad. More than 25 years after the Islamic revolution, Iranians could be forgiven for believing that the non-Islamic world, especially the United States, still judges their country by the scenes of mayhem around the US embassy and the ordeal of the hostages. Was it Iran's supposed nuclear ambitions, its Islamic regime or the hostage-taking that qualified Iran for membership of President Bush's "axis of evil" - or a bit of all three?
Finally, there is the secondary benefit to Iran of developing nuclear power: the access to technology, and some of the materials, that might enable it, in time, to master the weapons technology as well. And it is unfortunate that a line, however slender, connects nuclear power with nuclear weapons. A country seeking nuclear power is automatically deemed to be more interested in the weapons than the power - at least by those who possess nuclear weapons already.
But what makes the assumption so compelling in Iran's case is that it already has a fund of scientific expertise and that a nuclear weapons capacity would be so evidently in its interests. Iran needs a cheap and effective form of national defence. Its borders are highly vulnerable. It is in a uniquely volatile part of the world that has been made only more volatile by the ill-conceived US and British invasion of Iraq.
With the US indefinitely engaged in Iraq and establishing a presence in former Soviet Central Asia, with Israel believed to have a nuclear capacity and with India and Pakistan both now nuclear powers, the appeal of a nuclear deterrent to Iran is easily understood.
If suspicions of Iran's motives are justified, however, so is Iran's fury at what it regards as the insulting and condescending way its national aspirations are being treated. The new government may have been needlessly sharp in its ridicule of the inducements offered by Europe in return for Tehran's ending its nuclear programme, but in essence it was right. For the US and Europe to argue that Iran should not be trusted with nuclear power because it is presumed to be aiming for a nuclear weapon applies a blatant double standard.
The unavoidable inference is that "we" are allowed the benefits of nuclear power because "we" can be trusted to abide by the rules of non-proliferation, whereas "they" - the Iranians and anyone outside the First-World club whose need for cheap power is at least as great as ours - are not. The truth is that it is not enough for a country to sign up to the NPT, it must be "one of us" as well if it is to derive any real benefit from membership.
The point of a treaty, though, is that it should be neutral and applied to all; if it is not, it should be scrapped or rewritten to make the requirements explicit. The double standard that currently obtains risks encouraging the very behaviour the treaty was designed to prevent.
If there is no more tangible reward for playing by the rules than the international acceptance for which Libya settled, a country such as Iran has every reason either to flout the rules secretly or to abandon the treaty. India and Pakistan took the first route and won grudging acceptance into the nuclear club. North Korea took the second and has obtained renewed shipments of US food aid and the survival of the regime. What conclusion is a conservative nationalist President of Iran supposed to draw?Reuse content