By Ray Fleming

SENIOR American diplomats are fanning out across the Middle East this weekend. Secretary of State Clinton has a meeting in Saudi Arabia with King Abdullah, and other destinations include Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Quatar and Syria. There is plenty to discuss at each destination but there can be little doubt that the most urgent topic will be Iran and its accelerating nuclear programme.

A combination of factors has made appropriate action on Iran a top priority for the United States. The imposition of United Nations sanctions is the immediate aim; currently the necessary votes in the Security Council from Britain, France and the United States are guaranteed, Russia seems inclined to come on board, leaving only China to choose between abstaining or using its veto -- abstention seems the most likely outcome. Is there any alternative to such action? Probably not. France's widely experienced Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner has put the problem very well: “The only thing we can do, alas, is apply sanctions given that negotiations are impossible.”

It is undeniable that Iran has been totally unreliable as a negotiating partner on nuclear issues, not only with western countries but also with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency. Nor has President Ahmadinejad ever responded to President Obama's offer of “an open hand rather than a clenched fist” made in Cairo last June. It is probably important, however, to keep the nuclear issue separate from Iran's internal problems, at least for the moment.