America's undersecretary of state for political affairs, Nick Burns, told the world last week that his country's latest batch of economic sanctions against Iran is designed to support diplomacy: "In no way, shape or form does it anticipate the use of force." Perhaps Burns believes what he says, for the state department is thought to oppose military action. But in the White House sits a man who may be discredited but remains, in the phrase of Robert Draper, his most recent biographer, "dead certain". For another 15 months George Bush retains almost unchallengeable mastery of the greatest military arsenal on earth. There seems a real prospect that he will use this to cripple Iran's nuclear programme.
These sanctions are directed more at foreign businesses that deal with Iran than US commerce, which is already barred. It is hard to believe that Washington expects them to have much practical impact. As long as China and Russia keep trading, those imposed on Iran will, even by the historic standards of international sanctions, leak like Tony Blair's Downing Street.
The Iranians have oil, which the world wants to buy. The EU is eager to build a gas pipeline there, to diminish its dependence on Russian energy. Beijing and Moscow show no interest in helping Bush face down the Iranians. The principal causes of Tehran's economic turmoil are not sanctions, but the incompetence of the government and its refusal to allow foreign companies to develop its oil resources, for which the domestic skills are lacking.
There are two strands in the west's sanctions activity. The first is the elaborate minuet being performed by the Europeans. Led by France's Nicolas Sarkozy, their chief objective is to rebuild relationships with Washington by being seen to support US objectives. It is unlikely that anyone in the chancelleries of Europe supposes that sanctions will cause the Iranians to stop building their bomb. But they might deflect the Americans from military action.
As for the US, the main purpose of last week's action is to focus on what it believes is the violent meddling of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Iraq. There is also a school of thought that anger about economic mismanagement is a more powerful driver of Iranian public opinion than enthusiasm for an Islamic bomb; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is already unpopular, they argue, and in the perpetual power struggle that characterises Iranian governance, tightening the trade screws might tip the balance. Iran's moderates, the pragmatists who despair of rampant inflation, soaring unemployment and an economy wholly dependent on oil and gas, could gain the upper hand.
Unfortunately, this seems fanciful. It is easier to accept the view of the Texas academics who concluded in a recent study of sanctions that they make military showdowns more likely. Christopher Sprecher, of Texas A&M University, says: "The country being sanctioned views the sanctions as weak, and therefore becomes almost provocative." A genuine global diplomatic coalition against Iran's nuclear and foreign policies would be far more likely to impress Tehran, Sprecher and a colleague argue, than sanctions perceived as an overwhelmingly American play.
Few strategists dispute either that Iranian revolutionaries are playing a prominent role in frustrating the stabilisation of Iraq, or that Iran is doing its utmost to build nuclear weapons. Doubts focus on what can be done about these things. Europeans will continue to support diplomatic and economic measures adopted by the UN, designed to exhibit the world's dismay at Iran's behaviour. There is chronic scepticism, however, about such initiatives. Next month the UN will debate further sanctions, but neither Russia nor China will support tough action.
President Vladimir Putin last week compared Bush's behaviour towards Iran with that of a madman "running about with a razor blade in his hand". Not many Europeans suppose that it is desirable for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet most think this almost inevitable, and preferable to the ghastly geopolitical consequences of adopting military action to stop it.
The seven years of the Bush presidency have witnessed a haemorrhage of American moral authority of a kind quite unknown in the 20th century. Even in the darkest days of the cold war, and indeed in the Cuban missile crisis, most people around the world retained a faith in the fundamental benign nature of American purposes. This has been lost in Iraq. All manner of folk, outside Europe and America anyway, admire Iranian defiance of US hegemony. Iran aspires to become a regional superpower. The US now commands much less support than it needs to check Iranian ambitions by diplomacy, or indeed sanctions. The appeasers, as Bush would call them, may be foolish, but that is how they feel. Even in Europe there would be negligible public support for American military action.
Yet two parties see matters differently: Israel, and America's president. The Israeli attitude is familiar and implacable. It is plausible that Washington would endorse Israeli air strikes against Iranian nuclear plants if Israel possessed the right ordnance to do the job, which it probably does not.
As for Bush, one of his confidants assured me two years ago that he would never leave the White House with the Iranian issue "unresolved". That still appears to be his position. Such is his strange brand of serenity that he is unmoved by slumping opinion polls and foreign policy disasters. He believes that Iraq could still be redeemable, if the Iranian "terrorists" are checked. His military advisers tell him that air strikes would not destroy Iran's nuclear project, but could delay it by five years.
Six months hence, when it has become plain that sanctions have failed to move Tehran and his own departure from office is imminent, there must be a real prospect that he will launch Stealth bombers. Among the consequences of such action would be a steep rise in oil prices, and a dramatic and perhaps historic increase in tension between the Muslim world and the west. There would also be an agonising dilemma for Gordon Brown. Most of the British people would want the prime minister to distance this country from any such US initiative. Whether he would summon the nerve to do so is debatable.
An American writer, Barbara Slavin, recently published a book in which she argues that in 2003 Iran was ready to strike a "grand bargain" for a rapprochement with the US, a proposal rebuffed with indifference by the Bush administration. Whether or not such a deal was then plausible, meaningful dialogue has since become impossible amid the dominance of Washington's neocons.
Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard need US enemies to justify their idiocies at home and mischief-making in Iraq. At every turn the Bush administration obliges them, by seeming to welcome confrontation. The rival governments in Tehran and Washington deserve each other. It is another matter as to whether their peoples, and the world, do so. But relations between Iran and the US are likely to get much worse before either nation changes leadership and gives peace a chance.
-- Max Hastings
© 2007 The Guardian