Hostility is no help - the west must hug Tehran close

Pity the fate of Tehran's Americanologists. The ayatollahs are screaming, You told us the Great Satan was about to bomb us. Now what is going on? You told us mad Cheney was up and sane Condi was down. Tell us, is Bush his own man or not? What are your agents in Foggy Bottom saying? Who can unravel the power struggle within the Republicans' praetorian guard or among the neocon madrasas of Massachusetts Avenue?

On Monday, no fewer than 16 American intelligence agencies revealed in a national intelligence estimate (NIE) that George Bush had no clothes. Iran did indeed halt its nuclear weapons programme in response to the UN's "48-day deadline" in autumn 2003. International diplomacy under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty worked and Iran has been telling the truth all along.

This says not much about present-day Iran, but volumes about present-day America. The paradigm of western policy towards the Muslim world is changing. The age of paranoid belligerence may be coming to an end. With the impending demise of the Republican ascendancy, sanity is pushing its head above the parapet. As during the McCarthy episode, America has taken the world to the brink of chaos and is now hauling it back. Bush's "third world war" is on hold.

In his investigative masterpiece, The Target Is Destroyed, Seymour Hersh traced what happened to American intelligence after the Russian shooting down in 1983 of a Korean airliner. As raw material rose up the government hierarchy it was corrupted by agency politics and ideological spin until by the time it reached cabinet level the truth was mangled. Intelligence became whatever a particular politician needed to bolster his cause. The same happened before the Iraq war.

In 2003 Washington's intelligence assessors dared not believe that Iran's supposed nuclear programme was "no immediate threat". Now they dare. A previous assertion that Iran is "determined to develop nuclear weapons" becomes studied agnosticism. "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme" - and has not restarted it. Even assuming a policy change, Iran could not achieve critical capability until 2010 and "may not have enough enriched uranium until after 2015".

This is not especially enlightening. As between capability by 2010 and by 2015, a prudent strategist would assume the former. A maxim of Iranian politics is that even the predictable is impossible to predict. The outlook of this big, rich and boisterous nation is not that of a single dictator or political movement, as was the case in Iraq, but of a rambling coalition of forces, some hieratic and fanatical, some democratic and eager for rapprochement with the west. The former cannot be militarily defeated; the latter can be engaged.

Since the turn of the century, Iran's wilder heads have wanted a nuclear warhead. This is hardly surprising with nuclear powers ruling or in alliance to its east, north and west. Since the Iranian Revolutionary Guards appear to have at least some control over the nuclear programme, this is no joke. To rely on "the moderates" to hold them in check would be as unwise as to rely on America's Democrats to hold Cheney in check.

Yet there is nothing beyond diplomatic pleading and bribery that the west can do about this. Military action would unleash mayhem beyond imagining. According to the NIE assessment, pleading worked in 2003 and has held since. The ayatollahs decided that the nuclear game was not worth the diplomatic hassle, and possibly the cost. Trying to build a civilian nuclear industry was progress enough.

To have nuclear weapons, which almost a dozen nations do, is not the same as threatening or proceeding to use them. The latter is clearly susceptible to constructive engagement. That is why the first nuclear powers have "hugged close" the later ones, such as Israel, India and, more bizarrely, Libya. Iran is a complex polity and one which the west should regard, like Pakistan or China, as a regional power with whom business must of necessity be conducted.

There is no realpolitik in gratuitously abusing and threatening Tehran. Such belligerence weakens moderates, emboldens extremists and, in Iran's case, renders counterproductive any sanctions as might be imposed. The CIA's hamfisted backing of Ahmadinejad's opponents in his 2005 election helped hand him victory. As in recent dealings with Russia, the west's tunnel vision cannot see that foreign hostility, however justified, strengthens the domestic standing of the victim. Ahmadinejad (like Saddam before him) appears to have been reluctant fully to admit to his country its capitulation to the 2003 UN ultimatum, even if it meant breaching the nuclear treaty inspection regime. Western intelligence did not want to read this, and so ignored it.

As a result of the west's confusion, the Iranian president has been able to present himself as champion of Iranian sovereignty without losing flexibility later to develop weapons grade uranium should he choose. Under political pressure at home, he has been given a helping hand by Bush. He has made the Americans and British appear stupid.

This affair must indicate the demise of the White House in US foreign policy, and particularly of its Rasputin, Dick Cheney, who reportedly wanted the NIE suppressed. Washington is rife with rumours that Cheney's eagerness to bomb Iran met with a resignation threat from the defence secretary, Robert Gates, and a virtual mutiny from the chiefs of staff. They did not believe any proven threat merited such aggression and they could not and would not handle the military consequences. This defeat for Cheney probably emboldened the intelligence community to break cover. Intelligence has not conceded defeat to virtue, merely felt the wind of a political climate change.

The US policy of ostracism, containment and regime change in Iran has not worked. If anything, 2003 appears to have been a rare plus for UN diplomacy. The west has no interest in creating antagonism across the Muslim world. Thanks to its interventions, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are or may soon be in the hands of fragmenting, unstable or hostile regimes. It is crazy to add Iran to that list.

Tehran's ability to cause trouble throughout the region is obvious and inexcusable. But that is why bringing it within the embrace of western engagement is crucial, not pelting it with insults and sanctions. This is not appeasement, any more than western policy to Soviet Russia or modern China was appeasement. For Britain such engagement is clear-sighted attention to its interests and security.

Simon Jenkins