The Guardian: The outgoing British ambassador to the United States, Sir David Manning, insists the US remains committed to the diplomatic route over Iran rather than contemplating air strikes, despite recent sabre-rattling from the White House. Guardian Unlimited
· Outgoing ambassador dismisses sabre-rattling
· Negotiations can solve nuclear issue, he believes
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
The outgoing British ambassador to the United States, Sir David Manning, insists the US remains committed to the diplomatic route over Iran rather than contemplating air strikes, despite recent sabre-rattling from the White House.
Although Washington continues to hum with predictions of military action – one insider on Capitol Hill said there was a 50-50 chance of such a strike next year – Sir David said he had not heard anything from inside the US administration.
In an interview with the Guardian, Sir David said he was aware of the speculation but pointed out that there was “always a distinction to be drawn between debates that may go on in thinktanks or whatever”. “I think the place to be looking is at the administration, the governments … and there is no doubt in my mind there is a determination to persist with that [diplomatic”> policy.”
That strategy suffered a severe setback on Friday when the leading members of the United Nations security council failed to reach agreement on new sanctions against Iran and postponed further talks until next month. Russia and China refused to support a sanctions resolution proposed by the US, Britain and France.
But Sir David said reasons to be optimistic remained. He cited other seemingly intractable problems such as Libya and, though still ongoing, North Korea, as examples of diplomacy having worked. There were signs of internal political movement in Tehran, he said.
Asked whether President George Bush and the vice-president, Dick Cheney, would be tempted to take military action next year rather than leave office with Iran unresolved, Sir David said: “I can’t comment on a hypothetical. All I know is that for the past two years the US has supported a policy of negotiation accompanied by sanctions, and I have absolutely no indication from anybody that that is about to be changed or that they want to change it.” The US, Britain and France believe Iran is intent on building a nuclear weapon capability, but Tehran says its objective is simply a source of energy for civilian purposes.
Sir David, who retires this week from the post he has held since 2003, has been a pivotal figure in British foreign policy in the past six years. He was Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser between 2001 and 2003, during which time he established a close relationship with Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state.
Within the Bush administration, Ms Rice has held out against Mr Cheney and others and has continued to champion the diplomatic route on Iran. Although Iran remains an issue on which the US and Britain remain close, the gap between the two countries on climate change is growing and the British government is braced in coming months for tensions between the two on a host of other issues, including trade talks, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sir David said climate change was one of the areas that had developed fastest in his time in Washington. “The debate is less polarised and there is much more room for manoueuvre than four years ago,” he said.
The White House, the Pentagon and the state department have all expressed unease in private about the speed of the British hand-over in Iraq and US retired generals have voiced these opinions publicly. Sir David denied there had been tension: “It is a policy we have been pursuing all this year. It was not suddenly sprung on anyone. They have not come back and protested.”