All winter long the drums of war have been beating. At first it was reports, taken seriously by even hardened observers of the Middle East scene, that Israel was planning to use the Christmas holiday period to launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Then Iran in its turn ratcheted up the tensions as the New Year approached with a threat to close the Straits of Hormuz to oil shipping in the event of further sanctions from the US and Europe.
Neither event has so far happened and current wisdom would still suggest that they won't. The consequences would be almost too terrible to contemplate. Which is why, for the moment at least, you hear senior naval and other figures in Iran declaring that the country does not intend to close the Straits and why senior figures from Israel's security forces have openly talked of restraining the government of Benjamin Netanyahu from sending the bombers to Iran.
But these voices are very much in the minority. The really frightening thing about the situation is not so much the military preparations but that so many are ready to discuss war as if it was a perfectly rational, and indeed likely, possibility.
The pressures for war are there and growing. The right-wing governing coalition in Israel is publicly in favour of it. The military are advising that now is the time, before Iran progresses any further with its nuclear enrichment facilities. At the same time, the US administration of President Obama – which had been acting as a restraint on Israel – now appears weaker and weaker against the voices demanding confrontation with Iran.
When the so-called centrist contender for the Republican leadership, Mitt Romney, can say, as he did this week, that, "the greatest threat that Israel faces, and frankly the greatest threat the world faces, is a nuclear Iran", you know that the election is not going to allow the President to adopt a statesmanlike position where Israel is concerned.
Indeed Obama is not, signing into law as one of his last acts in 2011, a clause added on to the 2012 Defence Authorisation Bill, stopping any company working in the US from dealing with the Iranian Central Bank.
Sanctions, once considered a non-violent alternative to military action, have now become an act of aggression in themselves, targeting, for the first time, Iranian civilian society and ordinary trade instead of being limited to the activities of particular groups and individuals in Iran. And the EU, which meets later this month to consider further sanctions on the country, is set to follow with a ban on all purchases of Iranian oil.
Little wonder that Iran, the subject of intensifying factional struggles itself, a collapsing currency and severe economic difficulties, has responded by issuing threats and holding military exercises to show what it could do in response.
This is a madness in which every principle of diplomacy and every knowledge of consequences is simply being cast aside in pursuit of what? A nuclear Iran does not offer the existential threat to Israel to justify war (as the Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, said only last week). There is no overriding economic or strategic interest for the US or Europe to go down this vicious cycle of sanction, counter-threat and tighter pressure until something – probably peace – breaks.
If one had one single wish for 2012 it would be that sanity returns, that the EU calls a halt to ever-tighter sanctions, that President Obama has the courage to say what he clearly feels – that military action is off the table – and that Iran and the international community return to the table. It may be a vain hope but you don't have to look very far into the recent past to know what will happen if we don't stop the train now.
Hungary's new law is more than just a matter of politics
Monday's protests in Budapest over the new constitution, which came into law on 1 January, have at last concentrated minds on just what the government of Viktor Orban is up to in establishing a new legal framework for the post-post-communist era. Most attention has been directed towards the new rules reducing the independence of the central bank and the courts and limiting press freedom. But just as serious – in human terms even more so – are the very deliberate and oppressive moves to enshrine discrimination against gays, stop abortion, and limit religious groups, including Muslims and Buddhists, who have been making headway among the marginalised gypsies.
This is more than a question of political control, although some of the rules are clearly aimed at that. It is social conformism of the most conservative and oppressive sort. As the preamble to the law puts it, the new constitution is designed to defend the "intellectual and spiritual unity of the nation". We all know where that language comes from and where it leads.
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