The path to war in Iran

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Mohammad Khatami, the former president of Iran, will not be meeting any important officials during his visit to the United States. But he will be performing a service to his country, simply by reminding Americans that there are Iranian leaders other than the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad. As Khatami’s interview in today’s FT makes clear, he is capable of presenting a much more conciliatory face to the world than Ahamdi-Nejad.

American hawks are likely to be more impressed by what the current president of Iran is saying, rather than the views of his predecessor. Ahmadi-Nejad’s denial of the Holocaust and his vision of an Israel-free world have strengthened the hand of those in the US and elsewhere who argue that it would be intolerably dangerous to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

I got a taste of this last week, when talking to a senior Bush administration official. I asked him how seriously the Americans were taking Ahmadi-Nejad’s rhetoric. Do they really think it possible that he might be aiming to wipe Israel off the map? The official replied: “We have to assume that if people say things, they mean them,” adding that while the Iranian president’s remarks about Israel made the headlines, the Americans had also noted that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad had talked of imagining a world without the United States. The official also said that the Americans were worried that classical nuclear deterrence might not work when dealing with Islamic fundamentalists, who might believe that a nuclear exchange was a swift route to paradise. “At least,” he joked, “the Soviets were atheists.”

It seems to me that this kind of logic will lead inexorably to eventual American military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Almost nobody I’ve discussed the issue with believes that sanctions or diplomacy will ultimately lead to Iran giving up its nuclear programme. America, I think, believes that it can afford to follow these diplomatic routes to exhaustion, in the interests of building as much international support as possible for an eventual military attack. The most convincing analysis I’ve seen of American strategy was made a couple of months ago, by Robert Kagan, the neoconservative intellectual. It should be noted that while Kagan professes to be simply “imagining” what American policy might be, he has a reasonable claim to inside knowledge, since he is married to America’s ambassador to Nato.

Mind you, it is not just the Americans who have been put on their guard by Ahmadi-Nejad’s rhetoric. As Quentin Peel and Gareth Smyth reported in Monday’s FT, Kofi Annan was pretty taken aback after his recent meeting with the Iranian president.

Will Khatami present a vision of a kinder, gentler Iran during his visit to the United States? Don’t hold your breath, to judge from the reports of his first speech in Chicago on Saturday night. But his FT interview is certainly a start.

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