Leading article: A better way to deal with Iran than air strikes

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Beware an American president at bay. Haunted by tumbling poll ratings and the chaos of post-war Iraq, the eye of George Bush is fixing on Iran's nuclear plans. So says Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, claiming that Mr Bush is contemplating "bunker-busting" nuclear strikes on Iran's nuclear enrichment and processing facilities at Natanz and Isfahan.

Some may dismiss the reports as hyperbole, but there are plenty of indicators that the Bush administration is stepping up plans for air strikes on Iran and pursuing the option of regime change as a way out of a combination of domestic and foreign difficulties. First, there is the continual drip of leaked reports from within the administration to that effect. Then there is the priming of the pumps of US public opinion for the war option - witness the now routine comparisons made between Iran's leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Saddam Hussein, or even Hitler.

One has to hope that if Hersh is right and the US has cast aside the diplomatic route, Britain will not make the mistake it made over Iraq and go along with Washington from a sense of misplaced loyalty, for as Jack Straw rightly said yesterday: "The idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is completely nuts." One would have liked him to have gone rather further in emphasising that any strikes on Iran, nuclear or otherwise, were also nuts. This is partly because strikes on Iran would find no sympathetic echo within that country. Like it or not, the pursuit of the right to develop nuclear technology is an issue that unites Iranians. There is not a hair's breadth of a difference on this point between liberals and the most dogmatic supporters of an Islamic theocracy.

The only consequence of strikes, therefore, would be to unite the country in a boiling rage against America and its allies, which then raises the question of what form retaliation would take. It would be mad - "nuts", as Mr Straw might say - to compare Saddam's creaking, clapped-out state with Iran and assume the latter would fold under outside pressure like a pack of cards. Iran is richer, stronger and less prone to splits. It also possesses many proxy arms in the region, from the Shias of southern Iraq to the Hizbollah militias of southern Lebanon. Israel can look after its border with Lebanon, but it is less obvious how Britain would be able to look after its troops in Iraq if they were to become the target of a vengeful, homogenised Iran.

Supporters of Iranian adventures will taunt their opponents as naive peaceniks who are only good at saying what they oppose and less good at putting up alternatives. But there is a better way. With all the sabre-rattling in Tehran and Washington, it has been almost forgotten than Iran never slammed the door on the principle of nuclear inspections, or disowned its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

An anti-war option could go like this: the UN gives up its demand for Iran to freeze its nuclear enrichment programme and instead demands that Iran prove its claim that it is not intending to develop nuclear weapons.

If Tehran is merely interested in generating more electricity, as it says, it cannot object to the resumption of surprise inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency which it halted in February.

So, here is one way out of the Iranian maze, which is why this week's visit to Tehran by the IAEA head, Mohamed ElBaradei, on a mission to secure such concessions, deserves support. If Mr ElBaradei emerges with such a compromise, that is a line all right-thinking people should cleave to. Whether it will dissuade Mr Bush from his plans, as he desperately seeks a way out of his own domestic morass, is another question.