Wed, Nov 07, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Now is the time to nip the Iran issue in the bud

By Mary Riddell  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

The drums of war are beating. In the US, talk of a strike against Iran grows louder. In Israel, hardliners claim Tehran is close to getting the bomb. In Bahrain, host to the US Fifth Fleet, the state's foreign minister imagines doomsday.

"We don't want to wake up and see our skies dark, our sirens blaring," he says.

Last summer, the prospect of attack was negligible. Now a leading London risk analyst puts the likelihood at 30 percent, and others think that estimate conservative.

A security specialist at Chatham House tells me he "cannot imagine [US President] George W. Bush not doing something" if he thinks Iran is close to acquiring a nuclear weapon.

This is not about some distant tomorrow. If Bush launches an offensive, he is likely to act early next year, before the US presidential election campaign begins. The opening salvos of World War III could be fired within months. Catastrophe has rarely looked so close or felt so distant.

PUBLIC APATHY

In Britain, there is barely a ripple of protest or fear. News that bacon sandwiches can cause cancer has provoked more alarm than any meltdown incubating in Washington or Tehran.

The specter of a nuclear-armed Iran has failed to ignite public fears on either side of the Atlantic, partly because people have heard it all before. Hundreds of thousands have died in Iraq in a war waged to wipe out non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

This time around, the intelligence is just as thin, but the Tehran weapon, unlike the phantom Baghdad bomb, is a real and dreadful prospect. If developed, it will ignite an arms race in the Gulf states with consequences too ominous to imagine.

But such a threat cannot be eradicated by war. It is no more possible to bomb knowledge out of existence than it is to crush "terror" by conventional force. A pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear installations would plunge the Middle East into a war without boundary or end.

Undaunted, US hawks have advanced a second casus belli. Shia militias allegedly armed by the Iranian government are targeting US and British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran's Revolutionary Guards have been officially labeled "terrorists," and there is talk of surgical hits against their bases. This war, though no less disastrous, is the kind that Americans could sign up to.

And so might others. Unnamed Pentagon sources are reported to be saying that the British are "on board" for such a mission.

One of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's closest allies told me recently that it was "nonsense that Britain had agreed to write the US an open check on Iran."

No doubt that's true. But, equally, both Brown and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, perhaps mindful of the real threat to British troops, have declined to endorse Jack Straw's view that an attack on Iran is "inconceivable."

Brown's inscrutability is, in other ways, not surprising. As Ali Ansari of Chatham House says, the prime minister is determined "not to be Tony Blair," with all the global grandstanding that implies. So Brown, officially, is "ruling nothing out."

This caution seems not to mask any secret dissent from US policy. Despite Bush's recent, and inflammatory, US sanctions against Iran, Brown considers him a multilateralist in search of an international solution. A meeting last week with the moderate US State Department third-in-command, Nicholas Burns, may have reassured the prime minister further at the start of a crunch month.

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