Leading article: A counter-productive display of international machismo

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As if the tensions between Iran and the West weren't bad enough with President Bush's heightened rhetoric and President Ahmadinejad's increasingly obdurate stance on nuclear issues, Washington has chosen to ramp up the confrontation further with unilateral sanctions against Iran.

Although they may prove painful to the regime in Tehran, targeting as they do banks and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, they are unlikely to prove either effective or useful. The US has imposed various forms of commercial sanctions on Iran over the past 30 years and they have done nothing either to help the cause of reform within the country or the cause of moderation in its dealings outside.

Given Iran's oil and gas reserves and its market for imports, there will be plenty of people and countries (China and Russia most obviously, but also some European countries) willing and eager to keep dealing with Iran. The history of sanctions – Iraq is the clearest example – is that their effect is often not to undermine regimes but to increase the power of the ruling regime at the expense of the people. Sanctioned governments frequently use them to build up the rhetoric of a nation under threat, with the added benefit that they can control and profit from the means used to evade them.

The people suffer because their standard of living and commercial prospects are reduced. Worst hurt of all are the democrats and reformers within the country, who find themselves painted into a position of appearing creatures of the West if they criticise a government under threat. If President Bush wished to increase the standing of the radical president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and undermine the cause of democrats within Iran, he could hardly have done better than this act of commercial warfare. Just as with Fidel Castro, the more the pressure on Iran, the more Ahmadinejad is hailed as a hero for standing up to America, not just in Iran but in the Arab world as well.

The best that can be said of sanctions in this case is, rather a financial squeeze than a military strike, with all the consequences that would ensue. Sanctions may not do much to the so-called enemy, but they do feel warm to those imposing them. The worse the situation in Iraq, the more Iran has been erected within US politics as the enemy around which the nation can rally. Support for sanctions has come from not just the Republicans but also many Democrats, including the leading contender for the presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton. Calling for tough action is a way for politicians to prove their toughness and their sense of threat and purpose.

Nor has Gordon Brown helped the situation by announcing the British determination to seek tougher EU sanctions on Iran in a joint press conference in London this week with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel. Most of the Middle East believes that the Western actions against Iran are as much the product of Israeli interests as American politics without giving them apparent proof of their fears.

Unfortunately, showing your machismo is no way to international peace or security. The prospect of nuclear proliferation is a deeply troubling one. But it is not beyond reasoned negotiation. Iran has said it has no wish to develop nuclear weapons and remains a signatory of the non-proliferation treaty. It is in discussion with the Atomic Energy Authority over its concerns. It is in talks with the EU on the nuclear question and it has held discussions with the US over security in Iraq. Those are the forums in which its sincerity should be tested, not by bellicose gestures of "punishment" which can only increase the temperature and make it more difficult for either side to accept compromise.