Editorial: Iran's aspirations

When Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States he sought to make a new beginning in America's relations with the world.

In a break with the aggressive policies of George W. Bush, Obama ringingly declared: "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

Whatever that sentiment's appeal as rhetoric, it is proving more difficult to put into practice, as the example of Iran shows.

This week the bellicose Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, defied a string of United Nations sanctions resolutions and ordered the firing up of dozens of centrifuges to greatly increase his country's output of enriched uranium. Although the product these facilities will produce is only to a level needed to run nuclear power stations and is not of sufficiently high grade to create nuclear weapons, it is a crucial technical step up in Iran's nuclear programme. Having mastered the techniques required to produce this material, the next step to create weapons-grade material is a relatively simple one. And almost no-one believes Iran's repeated denials that it intends eventually to take that next step.

Iran's aspirations towards becoming a nuclear power long pre-date the current president and indeed have existed since the days of the Shah. The addition of another nuclear-powered state to the most tumultuous region in the world would be bad enough in itself, but the belligerence of the current regime – its open funding of Islamic terrorist organisations like Hizbollah, its avowed intention to bring about the elimination of Israel from the Middle East, the instability of its present leadership, not least the president himself – make the prospect all the worse.

So far Ahmadenijad has run rings around all attempts by the rest of the world to rein in his ambitions. Since 1996, the UN Security Council has passed at least six resolutions condemning Iran's actions and introduced sanctions, all of which Iran has ignored more or less with impunity. Diplomatic efforts by the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have also come to nothing, largely because of the failure of Russia and China to go along with any measure that would put real pressure on the Iranians. The Chinese, in particular, taking a newly assertive diplomatic role in the world, have been reluctant to go along with stiffer sanctions. The situation is not helped by the fact that such sanctions as have been agreed on have only fitfully been implemented.

Lurking at the back of everyone's mind is the highly unwelcome possibility that if Iran continues as it is, military action may be taken. The Americans showed no willingness under Bush to contemplate such action, and even less under Obama, but it is felt that at some point Israel may feel compelled to do so. Iran already has missiles capable of reaching Israel. It has said it wants to eliminate Israel. Military action would be difficult and profoundly destabilising to the region, but Israel may find the threat of a nuclear-equipped Iran greater than the risk posed by trying to strike at the nuclear installations and destroy them.

Iran with nuclear weapons, or military action to prevent it getting them, are highly undesirable alternatives. But if the world wants to avert them diplomacy must not be allowed to fail.

The Press