Tread carefully on Iran's difficult road
The short-term outlook for tensions over Iran's nuclear programme is bleak. The report on Thursday by the United Nation's nuclear watchdog has confirmed the worst suspicions of the international community that Tehran's nuclear activity is expanding.
Flouting a UN Security Council resolution demanding Iran freeze its programme, Tehran's nuclear scientists have been busy in recent months. Hundreds of centrifuges have been built underground and are now spinning uranium from nine tonnes of stock. Work is also continuing on a nuclear reactor and a plant to produce the heavy water it needs - both moves also defying the council. Iran, of course, insists the enriched uranium and the reactor are all part of its peaceful - and legal - ambitions to build a nuclear energy programme. The west, led by the US, fears the facilities will one day be used to produce enriched uranium for nuclear warheads aimed at its neighbours, particularly its stated enemy, Israel.
The report from Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, comes amid signs of growing tension. Washington has sent a second aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf - the biggest such deployment since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Pentagon leaks suggest planning for military action against Iran to smash the programme is in an advanced stage, despite more moderate words from new US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
A potentially dangerous deadlock now looms and there is little apparent confidence that the next known steps will be able to prevent it. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council - China, the US, Britain, France and Russia - are due to meet next week to thrash out a third round of sanctions against Iran's Islamic leadership. As the stakes increase, so might the differences among those trying to fix the problems. Given the quagmire in Iraq and fresh Taleban advances in Afghanistan, there is no international appetite for the US to open a third front in Iran, even with a limited strike. Given Iran's oil reserves and extensive economic engagement with Europe, Asia and Russia, an extensive and effective sanctions regime may prove diplomatically difficult to create and hard to enforce.
The hardline elements of Tehran's religious leadership may thrive on them-against-us isolation but there are few other similarities with Stalinist North Korea, where limited sanctions appear to have played a key role in forcing Pyongyang back to the table to forge a fresh agreement to curb its own nuclear ambitions. The risks to the world economy were minimal with North Korea; they are considerably greater with Iran.
So far, Washington's position is the classic Bush administration response - abandon the programme and then we'll talk. None of the welcome dexterity and dialogue recently shown over North Korea has yet been displayed by Washington when it comes to Tehran, possibly a reflection of three decades of hostility that followed the fall of the last shah.
Broader international dialogue is now needed to avert a path that leads to the point of no return. North Korea's first nuclear test in October last year showed the dangers of backing a recalcitrant regime into a corner. Incentives may be hard to stomach in some neo-conservative quarters but alternatives to current positions that allow work to be halted should be fully explored. As prickly and contrarian as Tehran can often be, there are nonetheless precedents for co-operation, albeit in very different circumstances. Tehran actively secured its border with Afghanistan in late 2001 to support the US-led campaign to oust the Taleban, a regime it detested.
Both the European Union and Switzerland have proposals for plans to severely restrict, rather than completely abandon, the Iranian programme ahead of longer-term solutions. No one wants to reward Iran for its bad behaviour, but that does not mean the way should be blocked to rewards for good behaviour if it can lead to a long-term solution.