Leading article: Israel should give diplomacy more time to work

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The Independent Online

As sure as night follows day, the West is being led into a military confrontation with Iran with imponderable, but certainly terrifying, consequences. The cycle of leak followed by denial should fool no one. The Israelis are the source of both. We need put little store, therefore in Ehud Olmert's denials that Israel is planning a nuclear strike on Iran to disable Teheran's own nuclear ambitions. The denial serves the same purpose as the leak: to orchestrate and acclimatise Western public opinion to the likelihood of war. If, or when, the strike comes, it will be sanctified by an aura of inevitability. As with Iraq, the line will be: there was no alternative.

As sure as night follows day, the West is being led into a military confrontation with Iran with imponderable, but certainly terrifying, consequences. The cycle of leak followed by denial should fool no one. The Israelis are the source of both. We need put little store therefore in Ehud Olmert's denials that Israel is planning a nuclear strike on Iran to disable Tehran's own nuclear ambitions. The denial serves the same purpose as the leak: to orchestrate and acclimatise Western public opinion to the likelihood of war. If, or when, the strike comes, it will be sanctified by an aura of inevitability. As with Iraq, the line will be: there was no alternative.

But as the war chariot rumbles slowly and purposefully on its way, it is as well that we at least recall the facts of the Iran imbroglio. One is that Israel does have reason to fear the government in Tehran. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does want to see Israel wiped off the map and does intend to be the Iranian president who presides over the acquisition of nuclear weapons, breaking Israel's regional monopoly.

The Iranian leader is not going to let go of his anti-Israel obsession, either. Never the favoured candidate of Iran's clerical establishment, he has silenced his clerical critics with rabble-rousing talk about Jews, conveniently diverting his working-class electors from his failure to do much to ameliorate their poverty.

He is also not about to throw in the towel over nuclear weapons. Hemmed in from east and west by nuclear Israel and Pakistan, with American troops on his borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has happily chanced upon an issue that rallies even Iran's liberals to his standard. Forget talk of the " Shia arc" that supposedly threatens Sunni Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. As most Iranians see it, their country is surrounded and urgently needs muscle in the shape of nuclear weapons.

This, however, Israel is determined to stop, hence the flow of leaks about Iran's nuclear plans, designed to impress Western public opinion with the idea that we all ­ not just Israel ­ face the same threat if Tehran joins the nuclear club. Hence also Mr Olmert's claim that it is up to the Americans, to stop ­ meaning bomb ­ Iran, or Israel will do the job itself.

There may be something in all this, but we need to think carefully before binding ourselves to Israel's agenda. It might also be wise to at least try to dissuade Mr Olmert from escalating the conflict to the point of no return, as he seems bent on doing.

An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites would not be anything like as strategically straightforward as Israel's earlier strikes on Iraq's nuclear reactor were in 1981, not least because the sites are dispersed and dug in.

But, more important than these logistical problems is the probable fall out from an attack. Quite simply, it would inflict appalling damage on relations with the Muslim world ­ a world that is growing demographically, and which is no longer on our doorstep but, thanks to immigration, a growing part of our own society.

These relations have already been strained to breaking point by the invasion of Iraq, even though it toppled an appalling autocrat. We must get ready for tension on an almost unimaginable scale if the West appears implicated in what to Muslims will look like an attack on a democratic state. The UN Security Council's recent imposition of sanctions has not halted Iran's defiance. But it demonstrates that the West has not exhausted its diplomatic options when dealing with Tehran. Israel needs to give diplomacy more time before going further down the road to a military confrontation. That would prove disastrous for us all.

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