Have we learnt nothing from the shameful and shameless run-up to the invasion of Iraq? Then, Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel prize-winning Egyptian head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, quietly but firmly said that as far as he and his UN agency were concerned, there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons or the materials to make them.
His conclusion was simply swept aside as the US and the British tore into the UN inspector, Hans Blix, determined to show that their worst warnings about Saddam were based on fact. ElBaradei and Blix proved right in their denial. Jack Straw and the hapless (in this case) Colin Powell were wrong.
So here we are, nearly five years later, and exactly the same is happening over Iran. Once again the UN process of inspection is in the firing line. Once again it is the figure of ElBaradei being roundly abused and told, more or less openly by the US and British, that his work is worthless, his opinions are of no consequence and that his proper place is sitting quietly by while the European Union and the UN Security Council got on with punishing Iran through sanctions.
And what has the poor man done to deserve this abuse? He had simply concluded that, while there was evidence that Iran had hidden some of its nuclear activities from the Agency, there was no firm evidence that it was in fact developing nuclear weapons or diverting materials from its civilian nuclear programme.
Without proof but with suspicion he preferred to use the negotiating tools provided by Iran's commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to press for intrusive inspection and to reach a new deal with Tehran to answer a series of specific questions over the autumn.
A gross abuse of his position, fulminated the Americans, British, French and Germans. He should have left it to the Security Council and the Europeans to pin the Iranians against the wall with a programme of financial and trade sanctions. All ElBaradei was achieving, they charged, was to allow Iran more time to procrastinate and confuse while they proceeded with producing weapons-grade material. If negotiations were to be pursued they were better done by the triumvirate of Britain-France-Germany and then with the maximum pressure of implied further action if Iran didn't give up its uranium enrichment.
To ram the message home, the new French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, this week talked openly about the prospect of "war" against Iran, earning the rebuke from Tehran that "using crisis-making words is against France's high historical and cultural position", a rebuff repeated by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, when Kouchner visited Moscow on Tuesday. Moscow, he said, in front of his guest, was "very worried about the growing number of voices considering military action".
As well they might be, for, since Bush's speech earlier this month, the drumbeat of war has grown ever louder in the capitals of the West. Just as before the invasion of Iraq, the threats of military action are accompanied by assurances that negotiation is still the preferred route. Just as in 2003, claims are being made about Iran's threat to world peace without substantiation or proof. And just as was the case with Iraq, Iran is being presented with the option of humiliation or war.
It's not the way - as the Iranians say with typical teasing - for civilised societies to proceed and the Europeans should back away from it. At the moment there is an impasse. On the one side are those, including London and Washington, who believe that Iran is determined to get the bomb and must be stopped at all costs. On the other side are the Iranians who, for all their internal differences, regard the ability to enrich uranium and pursue nuclear technology at least for peaceful purposes as their right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a matter of national pride. Between the two parties is now total distrust - the West of Iran's ultimate purposes and the Iranians of America's ultimate wish to force regime change on them.
Neither side seems in any mood to compromise. President Bush has upped the stakes by accusing Iran of fomenting the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. Creating a foreign threat out of a country which has such little Congressional support or American public understanding as Iran is a convenient political tactic at this time in his unpopular presidency. Iran has equally little reason to rush to agreement. Quite aside from the nuclear issue, it is in its interests to await the next moves in Iraq and the next presidency in the US. In the meantime it suits President Ahmadinejad to divert public opinion from the deteriorating economic situation at home by raising the spectre of American assault.
The obvious, or "civilised", step at this point would be to use the offices of a neutral third party to test out the sincerity of the two positions, which is in a way exactly what the much maligned ElBaradei is doing. Whatever you think of Iranian good faith, it cannot be bad at this time to pose questions, seek inspections and involve them in dialogue. To dismiss the UN's specialist smacks of insincerity on our part.
But then that is exactly what happened in 2003 - we said that we really wanted diplomacy and then went ahead with a pre-determined war regardless of the UN, regardless of domestic and international opinion and regardless of the consequences.
© 2007 The Independent