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The neo-cons give Iran the Iraq treatment

Sexed-up reports, pressure on the United Nations... here we go again, writes Jonathan Steele.

History is beginning to repeat itself, this time over Iran. Just two years after the British Government's 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 UN to declare it in "non-compliance", thereby claiming justification for going in unilaterally even if the UN gives no support for invasion; and at the back of the whole brouhaha, a clique of US neo-conservatives 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 UN, the IAEA in its reports has raised questions about Iran's professedly civilian nuclear program and its desire to create its own fuel cycle that 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 behaviour is clear, even though the IAEA has consistently made no such judgement. It has called for more transparency, but prefers to keep probing and, like Hans Blix in Iraq in 2003, insisting that it needs more time.

Iran, meanwhile, says the IAEA should accept that nothing wrong has been found and let Iran receive the civilian nuclear technology - with the safeguards that go with it - that countries such as 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 US's pre-war material on Iraq, he has not started to trumpet US sources. But he is choosing to interpret the available knowledge as harshly as possible. He is also close to the Washington hardliners in the Project for the New American Century, who created the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against unfriendly states and who favour regime change to deal with Islamist fundamentalism.

Norman Podhoretz, the arch-conservative 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 US is taking the lead in going to the UN. Bolton wants the IAEA board to say that Iran has violated its commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation 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 UN.

Second, even the US (Podhoretz excepted) is not talking about a full-scale US 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 US Special Forces or air strikes to destroy Iran's nuclear plants, or giving a green light to Israel to do it.

The biggest difference, though, is in Britain's stance. Unlike the Bush campaign against Saddam, Britain is siding with France and Germany this time. It is part of a "troika" that promotes constructive engagement rather than confrontation with Iran.

They have powerful arguments. The disaster of the Iraq war and the failure to bring peace, stability or order make them want to avoid a repetition with Iraq's more populous and larger neighbour. Even "limited" air strikes on Iran's nuclear plants 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 MPs in this northern spring's unfair elections, as well as the certainty that President Mohammad Khatami will be replaced by a less liberal figure next year, have 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. They want better relations with the West.

London's difference with Washington on Iran is remarkable. But does Britain's alignment with France and Germany on Iran mean that Tony Blair has really parted with George Bush on a key geo-political and military issue?

We will know the answer after the US election. Even if John Kerry wins, European diplomats expect no major change in Washington's policy towards Iran. 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?

Jonathan Steele writes on international affairs for The Guardian, London.

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