Gulf of mistrust

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ImageThe Times: The principal foreign policy challenge of 2010 will be to deal with an Iranian regime that destabilises its neighbours and suppresses its dissidents The Times

The principal foreign policy challenge of 2010 will be to deal with an Iranian regime that destabilises its neighbours and suppresses its dissidents

Leading Article

ImageIran, said President Obama this week, has used an iron fist of brutality in suppressing domestic dissent. That fist has long extended across the border into Iraq. It may have done so with the kidnapping of Peter Moore, the British IT consultant, and his four bodyguards in 2007. Mr Moore is now free, but at least three and probably all of his colleagues have been murdered.

The charge that Iran was directly complicit in the abduction comes from a source of high integrity and credibility: General David Petraeus, the former US military commander in Iraq. Soon after the kidnap, he stated his belief that Iran had funded, trained and armed the kidnappers. In recent comments that were revealed yesterday, General Petraeus expressed certainty that Mr Moore and his fellow captives were held secretly in Iran for part of their terrible ordeal.

That charge is diplomatically explosive. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was swift to deny having evidence that the abductees were held at any time in Iran. It is clearly impossible to reconstruct the movements of the kidnappers and their victims over 31 months, but the claim should be investigated as far as it can be. The notion that British nationals can be held captive on the territory of a state with the complicity and knowledge of its government is intolerable. But whether or not that charge is verified, Iran is a destabilising force in the region. The US and the EU3 (the UK, Germany and France) have for years endeavoured to gain Iranian co-operation in efforts to bring peace to the region and counter nuclear proliferation. They have found an unwilling partner. How to respond to a regime that is repressive at home, threatening to its neighbours, and contemptuous of the requirements of the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be the principal challenge in foreign policy in 2010.

One course in Western foreign policy that would have been misguided was fortunately not adopted. This was the view of the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, that the US should engage in direct talks with Iran and Syria. The Baker-Hamilton recommendations were published in December 2006, when it appeared that gross negligence and an absence of planning on the part of the US-led coalition in Iraq would see the country descend into vicious civil war.

Statecraft is not a zero-sum game, with relative winners and losers. It requires dealing with unpalatable regimes as well as allies, to secure common benefits. But common benefits presuppose at least some shared aims. The West’s aims of a peaceful and democratic Iraq, a two-state territorial settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a tough nuclear non-proliferation regime are demonstrably not shared by the mullahs.

Iran has sustained Hamas in rocket attacks on Israeli towns and Hezbollah in a campaign to undermine Lebanon’s Government. Iran’s ally Syria is widely suspected of assassinations of Lebanese politicians who stand in its way. Shia militant groups in Iraq suffered setbacks as a surge of US troops eventually established something close to security in Baghdad and its environs. But the evidence is strong that these groups have been equipped with improvised explosive devices from Iran, and used them against coalition troops. Most disturbing, Iran’s nuclear programme has proceeded apace without proper disclosure. There is no “grand bargain” on offer from a regime with these aims and these practices.

The worst diplomatic outcome in 2010 is one that looks all too plausible. The UN Security Council has not been united and the IAEA has not been strong. Iran’s regime will continue to do what it thinks it can get away with. It has got away with far too much already.

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