Nuclear tango forces new US strategy

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Senior White House strategists holding brainstorming sessions in Washington this week over how to stop Iran’s nuclear programme or effect regime change had only to look out their window for a possible solution.

Gathered in nearby Lafayette Park were a few hundred supporters – exiled Iranians and Americans – of the People’s Mujahideen Organisation (MKO). They were demonstrating against the Islamic regime and calling for a lifting of the US designation of the MKO as a terrorist group – a move taken by the Clinton administration in an effort to reach out to moderates in the Iranian establishment.

A US spokesman confirmed that senior officials were discussing Iran during the rally on Thursday. But they ignored the protesters. A second US spokesman said there was no consideration within the Bush administration to lift the ban on the MKO and its political wing.

The crisis facing the MKO – which backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and enjoys only marginal support within Iran – is only one aspect of the deep-rooted problems within the splintered Iranian opposition.

Recent Iranian opposition conferences held in Brussels and Berlin, mostly among leftwing secular groups and activists seeking a constitutional referendum, confirmed to the US and European governments the futility of seeking an answer to the Iran crisis outside the country.

The evolution in US thinking goes beyond the opposition. Three years ago, some senior officials – often with an ear to their neoconservative advisers – were persuaded that the Iranian regime was close to internal collapse, or to an overthrow by a restless populace. Getting rid of Mr Hussein in Baghdad would hasten the process, they were told.

Now, more cautious thinking prevails in the second Bush administration as it tries, despite its lack of a diplomatic presence in Iran since the US embassy takeover in 1979, to fathom the nature of the threat presented by Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the newly elected fundamentalist president, and how to respond to Iran’s incremental steps to further its nuclear programme.

This caution has been reflected in Washington’s own step-by-step approach towards the diplomatic dance involving Russia and the European Union trio of France, Germany and the UK.

US officials are even questioning whether sanctions against Iran are the right move, if isolation is what Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is actually craving. Some analysts, who asked not to be identified, said that at times London comes across as more hardline than Washington with regard to supporting opposition groups inside Iran.

Diplomats say that overall, relations between the US and the EU have improved hugely, largely thanks to Iran’s nuclear moves, but also the election of Angela Merkel as German chancellor. “We are far from the difficult times of spring 2003,” one senior European diplomat said, referring to the pre-invasion divisions over Iraq.

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