This article appears on The Guardian's "Comment is Free" site.
My article in today's Guardian about Iran's nuclear programme went to press before the release of the US National Intelligence Estimate (pdf), but I certainly find that report worth quoting and its implications worth stressing. It is predictable that Iran will present itself as pacific and the US as bellicose, but there is no reason anyone else should take the notion seriously.
While from my viewpoint as an Atlanticist of the European left, I would be glad to see Senator Hillary Clinton as the next US president, I find it alarming that her fellow Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, believes an intensified diplomatic approach towards Iran is the right one.
Diplomacy, yes - but allied to containment, sanctions and pressure. That is, after all, the approach the US and the EU-3 have been pursuing for some time. The argument of supposed warmongers, such as Christopher Hitchens on the left and also Edward Luttwak in the neoconservative magazine Commentary, is that civil society is potentially our ally in curbing the mullahs' ambitions, and we should not lightly discount that force. Iran is not like Saddam Hussein's Iraq: there is more serious prospect of effective diplomacy, and we have time. But dealing with Iran- labouring under a deceitful and extremist regime - is not like dealing with Canada either. The prerequisite of success is that the regime feel the pressure and the isolation.
I recently took part in a bear pit of a debate (moderated with impeccable fairness, I should add, by the former BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan) on Press TV, Iran's state-run English-language broadcaster, where I argued that case.
Against the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, who maintained that I was fuelling war fever, I argued that the best means of avoiding military action was to ensure that Iran's regime understood two things: the US and EU do not dispute Iran's right to civil nuclear energy; and Iran must adhere to its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Additional Protocol. I am particularly glad of the recent presence of the socialist Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, in European decision-making, as he is not one to muddy these requirements.
If the Intelligence Estimate is right that Iran put a moratorium on its development of nuclear weapons in 2003, then the implication is that our strategy is working. According to a senior intelligence official quoted in the Wall Street Journal today: "International isolation and international pressure created an atmosphere that clearly led to this decision." The NIE report hypothesises that Tehran's decision was "directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran's previously undeclared nuclear work".
Again, if this is right, then it accords with what independent analysts have been saying. As Shahram Chubin notes in his invaluable Carnegie Endowment study, Iran's Nuclear Ambitions, published last year, Iran intensified its nuclear programme in 1999 and "sought to create a fait accompli on the Korean model but was derailed by the public revelations of its undeclared activities in mid-2002. Put on the defensive by these revelations (occurring when the United States was planning the Iraq War), Tehran sought an accommodation with the EU-3, which included constraints on its activities."
It is, on the face of it, hugely encouraging that American and European pressure has apparently had an effect, and I hope that this is true. The problem is what I refer to in my previous piece as the studied ambiguities of Iran's nuclear programme, and in particular its stress on access to the full fuel cycle. Hanging tough on this question is the best hope we have of avoiding a scenario whereby a revolutionary regime with a messianic bigot as its puppet-president gains control of nuclear weapons.
While it may not be fashionable to praise the contribution of Tony Blair to foreign policy, I will cite him yet again for his prescience in perceiving the link between interventionism and security. He commented in 2004 of the cynicism of the worldly wise: "When they talk, as they do now, of diplomacy coming back into fashion in respect of Iran or North Korea or Libya, do they seriously think that diplomacy alone has brought about this change? Since the war in Iraq, Libya has taken the courageous step of owning up not just to a nuclear weapons programme but to having chemical weapons, which are now being destroyed. Iran is back in the reach of the IAEA."
CiF readers may not share my immoderate Blairism, but they at least now have circumstantial evidence of the wisdom of maintaining the former PM's policies.