Leading article: Iran risks playing into the hands of its enemies

The way Tehran is upping the ante suggests a belief that it has nothing left to lose

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No one can accuse Iran, or its current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of meekly rolling over in the face of international opprobrium. Which, of course, may be the precise point Mr Ahmadinejad wanted to make, when he starred in a bizarre sequence on Iranian state television yesterday. Clad in a white coat, the President inspected the loading of nuclear fuel rods into a reactor at the Natanz research plant. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation then showed off what he said was a new generation of super-efficient centrifuges, stressing that they, like the reactor fuel, were of domestic manufacture.

Nuclear fuel rods and centrifuges, though, are not toys; nor should they be used as propaganda props. To trifle with such sensitive apparatus – even if, as Iran still insists, it is designed to produce nothing more harmful than much-needed electricity – is to play with something more dangerous than fire. And while Mr Ahmadinejad and his officials may have been trying to underline that Iran can and will press ahead with its nuclear programme, in defiance of sanctions, they merely demonstrated their remoteness from reality. The impression was of a regime trying to bolster its possibly shaky position.

Iran's leaders are also, potentially, courting disaster. Thus far, those individuals – mostly in Israel and the United States – who have argued that Iran is well advanced on a nuclear weapons programme and that the window for shutting it down is fast closing have been in the minority. However shrill and insistent their voices, wiser counsel has prevailed. There is as yet no definitive proof that Iran is either developing a nuclear weapon, or anywhere near achieving one; the only evidence is of dissembling and obfuscation.

Nor, probably, will we ever know, with any certainty, the extent to which covert methods may have been successful in stalling Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions – if it has any. The toll of murdered Iranian scientists continues to rise, and there are reports of computer bugs fouling up Iranian nuclear software. Meanwhile, the US and the EU have tightened their sanctions, adding travel bans and asset freezes, that appear – to judge by Iran's increasingly indignant response – to be hurting.

Yesterday's stunt with President Ahmadinejad at the Natanz research plant is the most eye-catching of Iran's counter-moves to date, and the one most clearly tailored to domestic, as well as international, consumption. The message is that Iran will not be cowed into abandoning its nuclear programme, nor will it be unduly handicapped if it has to fall back on its own resources. But it is not Iran's only response to increased international pressure.

In December, Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a threat that prompted the US to send naval patrols and which anyway seemed unrealistic, given that Iran would be among the first to suffer. Then this week, Iran appeared to adopt a new two-pronged approach, with an announcement that it was halting oil exports to six EU countries and a spate of attacks on Israeli envoys in third countries. The arrest of an Iranian citizen in Thailand, who was seriously injured after apparently blowing himself up by accident, seemed to leave little doubt about where responsibility lay.

The way Tehran now appears to be upping the ante suggests either that the Iranian leadership is gripped by something close to panic, or that it is lashing out in the belief that it has nothing left to lose. Either prospect can only give succour to those who argue that force is the only language Tehran understands. Before pursuing their present course further, Iran's leaders should understand that they risk provoking the very response they, and most of the rest of the world, are desperate to avoid.

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