With no sign of compromise on either side, the confrontation between the United States and Iran over Iran’s nuclear programme is hotting up and looks increasingly as if it may run the risk of escalating into an armed clash.
• In an intimidating show of force, two US carrier battle groups, with 150 aircraft on board, have started air and naval manoeuvres in the Gulf close to Iran’s coast. A leading US hawk, Vice-President Dick Cheney, has stated that these deployments were intended to deliver a message to Tehran.
• ABC News reported last week that President George W. Bush had authorized clandestine CIA operations to destabilize the Iranian regime.
• The United States and Israel are intensifying their international campaign to undermine the Iranian economy. They have been trying to persuade major companies, banks, pension funds and other financial institutions to cut export credits to Iran, to stop dealing with its banks, to ban all arms sales, and to punish and sell stock in companies trading with, or investing in, Iran.
"The Iranians need to know that we’re serious about this," Nicholas Burns, US under-secretary of state for political affairs told The New York Times.
• The United States, Britain, and France will this week seek to persuade the UN Security Council to pass a third resolution imposing new political, economic and financial sanctions on Iran if it fails to halt uranium enrichment. Iran has ignored two deadlines to do so in two earlier Security Council Resolutions passed in December 2006 and March 2007. The new Resolution is expected to impose a mandatory travel ban on senior Iranian officials, including those involved in nuclear activities.
In a new development France’s recently elected President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has joined the United States in adopting a harsh tone towards Iran. "For my part I think we should not hesitate to toughen the sanctions," he told a German magazine.
Dr. Mohamad ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEI), is known to be most anxious to prevent a resort to arms. He has proposed a formula that would allow both sides to step back from the brink without losing face. But his suggestion has been brushed aside by the United States, Britain and France.
As a pragmatist, ElBaradei has said that the call for a total suspension by Iran of its uranium enrichment has been "superseded by events." It is too late, he argues, to insist that Iran give up uranium enrichment in order to delay its acquisition of the knowledge to make nuclear fuel. It has already mastered the uranium fuel cycle. Centrifuges are already at work at its Natanz plant.
Instead, he has suggested that Iran should be allowed to retain part of its enrichment activities -- say the 1,300 centrifuges now operating -- provided it goes no further.
Iran has claimed it has enriched uranium to a level of 4.8 per cent, enough to produce nuclear fuel for power plants, but far from the 90 per cent level need to produce a nuclear weapon.
Dr. Elbaradei has said that the CIA, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and French intelligence are all agreed that Iran would need another 4 to 8 years to manufacture an atomic weapon. In other words, he seems to be saying that there is still plenty of time for diplomacy and no need for the Western powers and Israel to panic.
The United States, Britain and France have criticized Dr. Elbaradei for these statements which, they say, he is not entitled to make. They are said to be considering making a formal rebuke to him. Germany, however, has not associated itself with this step.
In early 2003, before the US-British invasion of Iraq, Dr. Elbaradei declared that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons programme. This position earned him the bitter enmity of the Bush Administration, and especially of Washington’s pro-Israeli neo-conservatives, who were bent on overthrowing Saddam Hussein as a first step -- or so they thought -- to ‘reshaping’ the entire Middle East to make it pro-American and pro-Israeli.
In the event, the Iraq war has proved to be a catastrophic mistake and Dr. Elbaradei was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to prevent it.
Reacting to the intensifying Western pressure, Iran has struck back by accelerating its uranium enrichment activities and by arresting a number of Iranian-Americans, including Haleh Esfandiari, from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars in Washington and Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planner working for George Soros’s Open Society Institute.
These moves by both sides do not augur well for the scheduled meeting of US and Iranian envoys due to take place in Baghdad on 28 May, to discuss the situation in Iraq. It is hard to see how the two countries can agree on measures to stabilize Iraq while at the same time quarrelling violently over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.