History is beginning to repeat itself, this time over Iran. Just two years after the notorious Downing Street dossier on Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction and the first efforts to get UN approval for war, Washington is trying to create similar pressures for action against Iran. \nThe ingredients are well-known: sexed-up intelligence material which puts the target country in the worst possible light; moves to get the UN to declare it in "non-compliance", thereby claiming justification for going in unilaterally even if the UN gives no support for invasion; and at the back of the whole brouhaha, a clique of US neoconservatives whose real agenda is regime change. \nThe immediate focus for action against Iran is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has produced five reports on Iran in the last 14 months. Part of the UN, with an international board which acts like a mini security council, the IAEA's reports have raised questions about Iran's professedly civilian nuclear program and its desire to create its own fuel cycle which could eventually be used to produce bombs. \nTo satisfy its critics, Iran agreed last year to allow so-called intrusive inspections. As a confidence-building measure, it also stopped enriching uranium. In a few days' time the IAEA will issue a new report, and it is its wording which is causing the latest flurry. \nJohn Bolton, the Bush administration's point man, has been rushing round Europe claiming the evidence of sinister Iranian behavior is clear, even though the IAEA has consistently made no such judgment. \nIt has called for more transparency, but prefers to keep probing and, like Hans Blix and the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in 2003, insists it needs more time. \nIran, meanwhile, says the IAEA should accept that nothing wrong has been found, close the dossier and let Iran receive the civilian nuclear technology -- with the safeguards that go with it -- which countries like Germany and France have promised. \nBolton is not, at this stage, claiming to have intelligence which the IAEA's inspectors don't. After the fiasco of the US' pre-war material on Iraq, he has not started to trumpet US sources. But he is choosing to interpret the available knowledge as harshly as possible. \nHe is also close to the Washington hardliners in the Project for the New American Century, who created the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against unfriendly states and who favor regime change to deal with Islamist fundamentalism. \nNorman Podhoretz, the arch-conservative editor of Commentary magazine, one of their house journals, said last week: "I am not advocating the invasion of Iran at this moment, although I wouldn't be heartbroken if it happened." \nThere are differences from the anti-Iraq campaign two years ago. This time the US is taking the lead in going to the UN. Bolton wants the IAEA board to say Iran has violated its commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and take the matter to the security council for a decision on sanctions or other stern action. France and Germany are resisting a move to the UN. \nSecond, even the US (Podhoretz excepted) is not talking about a full-scale US invasion with ground troops. It has too many soldiers tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan to spare many for a third campaign. \nThe talk is of using US special forces or airstrikes to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, or giving a green light to Israel to do it. Slightly less impatiently, there are hints that the CIA will step up its campaign to overthrow the regime in Tehran by encouraging anti-government TV and radio broadcasts from abroad and infiltrating opposition movements. \nThe biggest difference, though, is in Britain's stance. Unlike with the Bush campaign against Saddam Hussein, Britain is siding this time with France and Germany. It is part of a "troika" which promotes constructive engagement rather than confrontation with Iran. Their dialogue ran into a sticky phase this summer with allegations of bad faith on both sides, but the three European states are willing to keep it going. \nThey have powerful arguments. The disaster of the Iraq war and the failure to bring peace, stability or order make them want no repetition in Iraq's more populous and larger neighbor. Even "limited" air-strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities would unify the country and harden hostility to the west throughout the Middle East, especially if Washington subcontracted the attacks to the Israeli air force. \nMost Iraqi resistance to the US is based on nationalist resentment, and Iranians are no different. People of all political persuasions in Tehran support their country's right to have nuclear power, and probably even bombs. Threatening them with force is not the most intelligent way to persuade them otherwise. \nThe defeat of Iran's reformist MPs in this spring's unfair elections, as well as the certainty that President Mohammad Khatami will be replaced by a less liberal figure next year, have not ended the chance of dialogue with Tehran. European diplomats detect the emergence of a group of "pragmatic conservatives" in the Iranian leadership who could be easier to deal with than the beleaguered liberals of the past seven years. Many are non-clerical veterans of the Iran-Iraq war who are influenced by nationalism and economic imperatives more than the revolutionary Islamic ideology of the Khomeini generation. They want better relations with the west. \nBritain's difference with Washington on Iran is remarkable. It matters more than the better-publicized splits on the Kyoto environmental protocol or the international criminal court. But does Britain's alignment with France and Germany on Iran mean that Tony Blair has really parted with George Bush on a key geopolitical and military issue? Or has he not yet spotted that what he regards as the lily-livered flunkies in the Foreign Office are up to their "realist" tricks again? They also opposed the invasion of Iraq until Ol' Laser-Eyes in Downing Street focused on the file. \nWe will know the answer after the US election. Even if Kerry wins, European diplomats expect no major change in Washington's policy towards Iran. Like Cuba, Iran produces special symptoms of irrationality (because of the unrevenged wound to US pride the mullahs caused when they held diplomats hostage in the embassy a quarter of a century ago). \nSo how will Blair cuddle up to the new president? What easier way than to break with France and Germany and show Kerry that, whether there's a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, Britain's prime minister is still best friends when it comes to being tough with Islamist bullies and taking the brave and moral route to war? Inshallah, no.
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