Leading article: Too much is at stake to give up on diplomacy

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The gathering crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions reached a new stage yesterday when the troika of European Union foreign ministers declared that their talks with Iran had reached a dead end. Iran is now likely to be referred to the UN Security Council, which could decide to impose sanctions. Were sanctions to have no effect, military force in one or other form would be the one remaining option.

Expressed in such stark terms, yesterday's admission by the European ministers constitutes a double failure. Not only is Iran apparently intent on continuing its nuclear programme but a diplomatic initiative in which EU ministers, and Jack Straw in particular, invested much time and political capital has come to nothing. By any standards, this is a disappointment.

Everyone's worst fear is that Iran is cynically concealing its determination to become a military nuclear power behind the legitimate development of an energy programme. And the nature of the Iranian regime offers no consolation whatever. This is a country run by a coterie of conservative clerics with a hard-line prime minister who has called for Israel to be "wiped off" the map. The nightmare is of a hostile Islamic state armed with a nuclear bomb.

Such a black-and-white scenario, however, is too simple. It ignores the fact that Iran has some legitimate concerns. For all its oil riches, Tehran anticipates an energy shortage and is trying to diversity its sources to include nuclear power as a cheap additional source of energy. Moreover, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has every right to do so. When the International Atomic Energy Agency imposed extra conditions on Iran's nuclear energy programme two years ago, it effectively adopted a double standard: there were first-world signatories who could be trusted with a nuclear programme, and then there was poor, Islamic Iran that could not.

That Iran nurtures the ambition to develop its own nuclear weapon is all too plausible. It inhabits a dangerous neighbourhood. China, India, Pakistan and, it is assumed, Israel all have a military nuclear capability. The US occupies neighbouring Iraq and has bases nearby. Equally, Tehran is entitled to point out, the "new" nuclear powers benefited from not being signatories to the non-proliferation treaty. The great fear is Iran might emulate North Korea in withdrawing from the treaty, even if it becomes an international pariah by so doing. This is the - small - leverage Iran still has in its dealings with the IAEA and, as now seems inevitable, the UN.

Even now, though, it is too early to conclude that all is lost. Thus far, Iran has preferred to push the limits of the international regulations that bind it rather than flout them. In breaking the seals at its uranium enrichment facility, as it did - to almost universal condemnation - this week, Tehran ended the commitments it had entered into under pressure from the IAEA; strictly speaking, it was not breaking the rules. And the risk in believing the worst of Iran is that it will eventually fulfil those expectations. Only last week, we revealed that, contrary to earlier reports, Iran was not involved in the deaths of British servicemen in Iraq. To rush to conclusions about Iran's malign intent just because we fear its regime contains perils of its own.

In dealing with Iran, the priorities must be international security and nuclear non-proliferation, but also fairness. The next step needs to be broad international, not just European, solidarity - and there are some hopeful signs. US and Russian representatives will join the European troika for talks next week in London. The objective should be to reinforce the diplomatic pressure rather than to give up altogether. Too much is at stake for that.

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