Keep door open for a moderate Iranian leadership

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2006, 12:00am

The United Nations Security Council's unanimous vote at the weekend to apply sanctions to Iran follows two months of negotiations that failed to force Tehran to clarify its nuclear ambitions. The watered-down resolution bans the export of nuclear and missile- related materials and technology to Iran and freezes the assets of 10 Iranian officials and 12 companies linked to the nuclear programmes. Iran has been given 60 days to suspend its nuclear enrichment programme and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel or face tougher economic sanctions.

It is thus essentially an interim measure that anticipates its own failure to influence Iran's policies. If anyone has emerged a winner it is Iran's ally Russia, which succeeded in getting an exemption for a nuclear reactor it is building for Iran and headed off a travel ban on officials with nuclear links. These concessions, and the haggling over sanctions, were a case of President Vladimir Putin putting his country's interests ahead of non-proliferation and international security.

Predictably, Tehran has ramped up its defiance, condemning the UN, vowing to accelerate enrichment and threatening to suspend International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. There are reports that Iran's 3,000 enrichment centrifuges have gone into full operation already.

Also worrying, however, are messages from the west that do nothing to ease the isolation of the ultra-conservatives, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who hold the political reins in Iran. US President George W. Bush has ruled out talks with Iran over the dire security situation in neighbouring Iraq - one of the main recommendations of the influential, bipartisan Iraq Study Group that included his new secretary of defence. And British Prime Minister Tony Blair wound up a tour of the Middle East and the Gulf by denouncing Iran and calling for an alliance of moderate Arab states to confront the 'threat' it poses.

The study group's report recognised the importance of including Iran in any attempt to address the region's troubles. This sentiment has been reinforced by elections held since in Iran. They were for municipal councils and the Assembly of Experts, which selects and oversees the nation's supreme leader. A swing to moderate and reformist candidates delivered a strong rebuke to Mr Ahmadinejad. Prominent among the winners was the president's predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who favoured talks to restore relations with the US, and former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani, whom Mr Ahmadinejad has accused of making too many concessions to the Europeans.

The results reflect concern with domestic economic issues, a shift of opinion back towards the centre and rejection of international confrontation. The west should therefore be careful to leave an opening for more flexible, pragmatic leadership from Tehran over time.