By Anton La Guardia
The more one looks at Iran's civil nuclear programme, the more it looks like a concerted project to build an atomic bomb. So Teheran's decision yesterday to suspend all aspects of uranium enrichment is, on the face of it, good news because it blocks the mullahs' most direct route to making weapons-grade fissile material.
The so-called EU-3 - Britain, France and Germany - that negotiated the deal are congratulating themselves on neutralising Iran's nuclear programme through diplomacy rather than blunt military force. They believe they are on their way to a grand bargain that averts the danger of another Iraq-style war, "turns the corner" in relations with Iran and begins the process of reconciling America with Teheran's Islamic revolutionaries.
This should be treated with caution. There are serious questions about how much of Iran's nuclear programme remains hidden from international inspectors. Even if scrupulously respected by the mullahs, the suspension can be instantly abrogated. Britain's attempt at match-making between Washington and Teheran is also questionable. Many in both capitals seem more bent on confrontation than reconciliation.
Iranian hardliners believe the "Great Satan" is mired in the Iraqi insurgency and can be thrown out in the same way as the Soviets were evicted from Afghanistan. They believe the lesson from Pakistan and India is that, once a country has nuclear weapons, it is safer and accepted at the top table.
Meanwhile neo-conservatives in Washington, emboldened by George W Bush's re-election, believe the time is ripe for "regime change" in Iran, as the next member of the "Axis of Evil". They claim an invasion would not be necessary - at most there could be limited strikes against the Revolutionary Guards and nuclear facilities - because Iran is in "incipient revolution". They believe America can help students rise up against the clerics, in the same way as they backed Poland's Solidarity movement in its confrontation with the communists.
It may seem perverse that America could even think of a new adventure in the Middle East. Yet the neo-con high priests, who once argued that overthrowing Saddam would create a wave of democracy in the region, now say democracy cannot be established in Iraq without first changing the regimes in Iran, Syria and even Saudi Arabia. In other words, stability in Iraq can be achieved only by destabilising its neighbours.
British ministers believe the Iranian regime is firmly entrenched, and say they will have nothing to do with trying to overthrow it. But after September 11 they also said they would not invade Iraq. What will Tony Blair do if the intelligence agencies report that Iran is dangerously close to a nuclear weapon and Mr Bush decides he has no choice but to bomb its nuclear facilities?
The Government pins its hopes on European "critical engagement" with Teheran. It will not be easy, though. One senior British source described bargaining with the Iranians thus: "It's like agreeing to buy a car for £1,000, handing over the money and finding the car has only three wheels. You then agree to pay £100 for the wheel, only to find it has a bald tyre. It never stops."
In its deal, the EU-3 finds itself paying ever more for the same goods: Iran had already promised to "suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities" in October 2003, but dragged its heels, then reneged last summer.
The Europeans at first gave Iran just a vague promise of "easier access to modern technology and supplies" once the enrichment programme had been permanently halted. Now they have agreed to "move ahead with projects and/or measures that can be implemented in advance of an overall agreement". Senior officials say these could include an EU trade deal and the supply of civilian aircraft.
The Europeans know the agreement is just a stopgap until Mr Bush decides what to do. Iran is fast becoming one of the most pressing foreign policy questions of his second term. Having invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, America has become Iran's close neighbour. And, like hostile neighbours, they can either turn each other's life into a living hell or seek an accommodation.
With US forces surrounding Iran, America presents a real threat to the Iranian regime. Teheran, for its part, can cause even greater mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan, and could throw its weight behind the international terrorist war against America.
"If they get into a confrontation, it will be very bloody," said one British source - adding that British forces in southern Iraq, along the border with Iran, could be caught in the middle. No wonder London is so keen on effecting reconciliation.
Engineering the downfall of the Iranian regime is too uncertain a policy to be relied on: American interference could strengthen the regime, as it has done with Fidel Castro. In any case, the mullahs may obtain nuclear weapons long before the students can sweep them from power.
With US forces badly stretched, the invasion of as large and mountainous a country as Iran is unthinkable. Even the bombing of nuclear sites is difficult, because they are dispersed and some facilities are buried in deep concrete bunkers. "It would be odd to have to use nuclear weapons to destroy the nuclear programme," said one senior British official. Moreover, military action could cause a nationalist backlash in Iran, and a wave of anti-Western outrage in the Muslim world.
So, for the moment, there are few choices but to try to contain Iran's nuclear programme by political pressure and rigorous inter-national inspections. To succeed, the Europeans will need America to continue playing "bad cop" while acquiescing to cautious rewards for good behaviour. But if the Europeans fail, the day may come when military action, unpleasant as it may now appear, will seem less unpalatable than the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.