November 30, 2011 10:13 pm

Trouble in Tehran

Concerted action is needed to contain Iranian regime

Hostility and deep mistrust have marred relations between Iran and the UK for more than half a century. If you trip over a stone in the road, warns a Persian proverb, it was put there by an Englishman. Yet even against this dismal backdrop, relations have hit a serious low. On Tuesday a posse of Iranian protesters was able to ransack the British embassy in Tehran. In response, Britain has closed the embassy and expelled Iranian diplomats from the UK.

The expulsions are fully justified. International law requires states to protect the premises of diplomatic missions to their country from intrusion or damage. The Iranian regime has sought to pass off Tuesday’s excesses as the actions of a small number of “students”. Yet it is barely credible that the British compound could have been breached without the acquiescence of the Iranian security forces. Tellingly even Russia, often a defender of Tehran, has condemned the incident.

Despite Iranian protestations, the storming of the embassy is partly a symptom of the rising tensions around the country’s disputed nuclear programme. Pressure on Iran has been mounting since the International Atomic Energy Agency published its latest assessment last month. The British response to this report – financial sanctions targeting the Iranian central bank – has particularly infuriated Tehran.

Europe’s foreign ministers, who meet on Thursday, must consider how best to respond. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would be a disaster, and could spark a destabilising arms race across the Middle East. Yet military intervention is hardly more attractive. It would probably merely slow down Iran’s nuclear efforts. And it might well result in a major regional war. That leaves ratcheting up the current mix of sanctions and diplomacy as the best available option.

As well as the British plan to target the central bank, there are proposals to freeze Iranian assets and ban European imports of Iranian oil. An oil ban could hurt Iran – Europe takes about 30 per cent of its exports – but at a time of global economic weakness, it might well backfire. Targeting the central bank seems a better option. Whatever action is taken, however, the key is that it has sufficient international support to be effective.

If international efforts fail, there is a danger that Israel will at some point decide to take matters into its own hands. It would be hard for the west to avoid being drawn in to the ensuing conflict. This nightmare must be avoided at all costs.

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