THE only positive thing to be said about the current tension between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency is that, apart from the Iranian President himself, no one is making threats or setting ultimatums. The United States certainly feels strongly about the possibility that Iran is preparing to build a nuclear bomb but thus far it has been ready to give diplomacy a chance and, for the moment, seems to want to keep the problem within United Nations boundaries. Perhaps this is a recognition that the kind of unilateralism displayed over Iraq was counterproductive; it may also be because in the case of Iran it is difficult to imagine that any kind of military action could be contemplated. Negotiating with Iran is not easy. The normal courtesies of diplomatic procedures are not always observed by Teheran and it must be difficult to know which of the various centres of power in the country is actually taking the decisions on any particular issue. President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has no diplomatic skills at all and seems to relish the consternation that some of his utterances cause. The best thing is to ignore his more extreme statements and try to concentrate on the central issue. But what, precisely, is this issue? Iran is fully within its rights to choose to develop a nuclear energy capacity, just as are all signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. However, it is not entitled to build nuclear weapons and there are indications that it may be trying to do so, despite its denials. Whether it is two years away from achieving this, as some say, or ten years, as others think, is not really the issue. The task is to persuade Iran that if it moves in this direction it will risk alienation by a substantial part of the world community. The obvious priority for the United States and Europe is therefore to remain in step with other key countries such as China, India and Russia. At the moment there seems a reasonable chance of doing this but only if patient and sensitive negotiation over a prolonged period is maintained. Grandstanding and lecturing will get us nowhere. Make no mistake, the stakes are high.
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