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 United Nations approval for war, Washington is trying to create similar pressures for action against Iran.
The ingredients are well-known: sexed-up intelligence material that puts the target country in the worst possible light; moves to get the U.N. to declare it in "noncompliance," thereby claiming justification for going in unilaterally even if the U.N. gives no support for an invasion; and at the back of the whole brouhaha, a clique of American neoconservatives whose real agenda is regime change.
The immediate focus for action against Iran is the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has produced five reports on Iran in the past 14 months. Part of the U.N., with an international board that 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.
To 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 that is causing the latest flurry. John 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. It has called for more transparency, but prefers to keep probing and, like Hans Blix and the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq in 2003, insists it needs more time.
Iran, 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 -- that countries like Germany and France have promised.
Bolton is not, at this stage, claiming to have intelligence that the IAEA's inspectors don't. After the fiasco of the United States' prewar material on Iraq, he has not started to trumpet U.S. sources. But he is choosing to interpret the available knowledge as harshly as possible. He is also close to the Washington hard-liners in the Project for the New American Century, who created the doctrine of preemptive strikes against unfriendly states and who favor regime change to deal with Islamist fundamentalism.
Norman Podhoretz, the archconservative 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."
There are differences from the anti-Iraq campaign two years ago. This time the U.S. is taking the lead in going to the U.N. Bolton wants the IAEA board to say Iran has violated its commitments under the nuclear nonproliferation 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 U.N.
Second, even the U.S. (Podhoretz excepted) is not talking about a full-scale U.S. invasion with ground troops. It has too many soldiers tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan to spare many for a third campaign. The talk is of using U.S. 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.
The 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" that 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.
They 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" airstrikes 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.
Most Iraqi resistance to the Americans 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.
The defeat of Iran's reformist M.P.'s in this spring's unfair elections, as well as the certainty that President Mohammed Khatami will be replaced by a less liberal figure next year, has 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 nonclerical 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.
Britain'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.
We will know the answer after the U.S. election. Even if John Kerry wins, European diplomats expect no major change in Washington's policy toward Iran. Like Cuba, Iran produces special symptoms of irrationality (because of the unrevenged wound to U.S. pride the mullahs caused when they held diplomats hostage in the U.S. Embassy a quarter of a century ago).
So 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.