Published: September 23 2007 19:10 | Last updated: September 23 2007 19:10
The drums of a new war, this time with Iran, are beating. In Washington and Tehran, a mix of breast-beating, veiled threats and bellicose leaks suggests that factions in both capitals believe war is not just probable but probably in their interest.
Unsubstantiated claims by the Bush administration that Iran is to blame for the implosion of Iraq have become alarmingly strident.
France, which steered well clear of Iraq under Jacques Chirac, under Nicolas Sarkozy suggests the world may be forced to choose between an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran. Bernard Kouchner, a rare French supporter of the Iraq invasion who is now foreign minister, spoke last week of the need “to prepare for the worst; the worst is war”.
Israeli officials talk of when, not whether, Iran will have to be attacked. On September 6, Israel’s warplanes struck targets in northern Syria that both sides decline to identify. In a barrage of leaks reminiscent of Israeli claims five years ago that Iraq had moved its weapons of mass destruction into Syria, Israel and the US are hinting the target was a North Korean-supplied nuclear facility. Politically most significant, however, is that there was not one peep of Arab protest at this unexplained attack on an Arab country allied to Iran.
Can this momentum be broken?
The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, with France now firmly behind the US and UK, are trying to get tougher sanctions to force Iran to end uranium enrichment. Russia and China feel the UN’s nuclear watchdog should be given more time to broker agreement – time Washington fears Tehran could use to master bomb-making technology.
Meanwhile, inside Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, its fundamentalist president, looks vulnerable to an alliance emerging between reformists led by former president Mohammad Khatami and pragmatists led by Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president who stands at the fulcrum of Iran’s complex power structure. But that challenge looks lengthy, and the alliance is clouded by past betrayals and ambiguity.
For any policy to have a chance of working, it must avoid the aggression that stampedes Iranians into closing ranks behind the hardliners. Yet it must also be finely calibrated: between targeted sanctions with real bite and offers of negotiations on issues of real significance to Iran, such as its place in the region and the world. There is still time and there has to be effort.
“And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars,” says a famous passage in the gospels, “but the end is not yet.” Let us hope so.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007