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No more pussyfooting around Iran

Editorial

04/03/06 "
The Telegraph" -- Three years on, we are still unable to look at foreign policy except through the lens of the Iraq war. This is especially true when it comes to Iran, whose alphabetical and geographical proximity to Iraq makes for facile comparisons.

In particular, it is argued that deploying force against Teheran would bring about the same unhappy consequences as the toppling of Saddam: it would lead to more instability; it would inflame Muslim opinion throughout the world, including in Western cities; it would violate international law; and it would worsen the lives of ordinary Iranians.

Once again, the motives of those calling for direct action are called into question. Just as we were forever being told that the West had sold weapons to Ba'athist Iraq, so we are now being reminded that it was British and American agents who overthrew Iranian democracy in the first place, back in 1953. This last argument is very silly: the fact that we made mistakes in the past is not a reason to make more mistakes in the future. But the other objections are serious ones, and deserve to be considered separately.

Take, first, the argument that a military strike would destabilise the country. This is true: the mullahs are currently very stable indeed, having concocted a system that prevents Iranians from voting for anyone who dislikes them.

But this domestic stability is bought with international aggression. Not only is Iran arming paramilitary groups in neighbouring states, it has been implicated in terrorist actions as far afield as London and Buenos Aires. To borrow a metaphor from Lenin, Iran is exporting its internal contradictions.

As for Iran becoming a cause célèbre for Muslims in other countries, this is based on a misunderstanding. Iraq was a largely Arab country and, as such, part of a community that stretched as far as Morocco and was united not only by historical and linguistic ties but by a nexus of shared news media.

The Persians, by contrast, have been periodically at war with their Arab neighbours since the time of the Great Kings. More importantly, Iranians are Shia, which sets them apart from the orthodox Sunni teachings that attract some 90 per cent of the world's Muslims. To this day, the million-odd Sunnis who live in Teheran are not allowed their own mosque - unlike their co-religionists in, say, London or Washington.

Nor are Sunnis the only minority with a grievance. The ayatollahs have engaged in human rights violations every bit as gruesome as Saddam's, including the show-trials of Jews and, in one recent case, the execution of a teenage girl on adultery charges.

But what, you might ask, has any of this to do with us? The answer is that Iran's nuclear ambitions go well beyond the regional. Two years ago, the mullahs deployed Shahhab-3 ballistic missiles, with a range of 800 miles. Last October, this newspaper revealed that Teheran was receiving clandestine shipments of missile technology from North Korea. The best estimate is that Iran will have the bomb by 2008.

This is not some symbolic goal: the ayatollahs are building nuclear weapons because they want to use them. President Ahmadinejad has called for the annihilation of Israel. His adviser, Mohammad Ali Ramin, wants to export military technology to the 150 countries that he believes would back Iran against the West. Another adviser, Hassan Abbasi, has - in addition to calling Britain the "mother of all evil" - observed that, once George Bush leaves office, the West will return to its traditional quiescence.

He is probably right: for the past decade, the EU has pursued a policy of "constructive engagement" with Iran. In what must stand as his single greatest failure, Jack Straw has repeatedly visited -Teheran, hoping naively to coax the mullahs out of their nuclear ambitions.

As for the charge that it's all about oil, let us not be shy of saying that it is in no one's interests for a large chunk of the world's oil supplies to be in the hands of hostile fanatics.

What, then, should we do? There is, after all, a danger that military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities might boost support for Ahmadinejad - indeed, some Iranian dissidents believe that his wild rhetoric is designed to provoke precisely such an attack. Unlike Iraq, whose nuclear programme was wiped out with a single raid in 1981, Iran is attempting the more complex procedure of centrifuge separation of uranium hexafluoride gas in installations spread throughout the country.

A direct strike might be a necessary last resort. But our earlier objective should be to support the opposition groups. The enemies of the ayatollahs are divided: some are monarchists, some communists, some representatives of Iran's national minorities. Some are in exile, some in Iranian campuses. Around 40,000 are trained soldiers based in Iraq, where they have been disarmed by the Americans. But, together, these groups speak for perhaps 85 per cent of the population. They hold the key to replacing this wicked regime.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2006

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