Image Credit: Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

There is a real danger that 2011 could be the year that the Obama administration runs out of patience with its apparent commitment to finding a peaceful route to solving its dispute with Iran, and policy planners move the military option from being an implicit threat in the background to become a much more central part of Washington thinking.

This drift to warlike thinking carries all sorts of dangers. As Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation magazine pointed out in worrying forecast just before the year-end holidays, if the US were to make actual war preparations in the Gulf a cascading series of bad consequences would likely result: Iran might suspend talks entirely, withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, kick out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and hide its nuclear programme.

At the same time he foresaw that many supporters of Iran's opposition Green Movement, as well as reformists and the rebellious business class, would find it much harder to oppose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And internationally, Russia and China, which have sceptically signed on to Washington's economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, would back away from cooperation. In addition, it is very possible that support among other allies for the US' position would erode, as it did over Iraq in 2003.

This gloomy forecast is all too likely to happen unless the Obama administration articulates a clearer vision on how it plans to engage with an Iranian administration that does not really want to solve its quarrel with the US. Ahmadinejad values his position in the Third World as the leading opponent of the US and its world view.

But any such leadership from the administration would be fighting the tone set by hawks such as Senator Lindsey Graham, who a few months ago said "a war should be designed not to just neutralise their nuclear programme but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard; in other words neuter that regime".

Or the influential Senator Joe Lieberman who has called Iran "extreme", "expansionist" and "terrorist', as well as using the excuse of the end of 2010 to say that a deadline has passed and that it is now time for American action.

Fear of sanctions

On its side, Iran announced a new invitation to Russia and China to tour its nuclear sites, in a clear attempt to woo two nations whose veto power on the UN Security Council is crucial to Tehran's battle to ward off more sanctions.

However, this offer is very far from the full access to any place and any time that the international community has been seeking for years, in order to asking for to dispel its fears that Iran is developing a military nuclear programme.

Iran's selective invitation to two international powers deliberately excludes the Europeans and US, and is designed to drive a wedge between them. It may or may not succeed, but both Russia and China have shown some signs of becoming irritated with Ahmadinejad's continued grandstanding on this issue.

For their part, the Arab states in the Gulf have been very clear that they do not want confrontation, with the unpredictable dangers contained in a drift to military action.

Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan spoke on behalf of Arab states when he reiterated last year that the UAE and its Arab allies respect Iran as an important neighbour and trade partner, and recognise its right as a sovereign nation which has signed the NPT to acquire peaceful nuclear energy.

But this is not a blank cheque of support for Iran's deliberately antagonistic stance. Shaikh Abdullah was firm that Iran must make its intentions clear, and stop any ambiguity over its nuclear programme.

The UAE has also taken a lead in seeking to make the sanctions on Iran workable. The government has clearly agreed that the new round of sanctions will be applied in the UAE, and they have had a substantial impact. Many companies with decades of experience in Iran have suddenly found that they are unable to continue doing business with named individuals or institutions.

But there is another side to this as Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, made clear when he spoke to US Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey in August 2010 and said: "There are a lot of legitimate transactions taking place and I think it is extremely important to have that balance right, between our international commitments on the one hand and also between the fact that a lot of the transactions that we do have are legitimate."

The Iranians are well aware of the importance of finding new friends and improving their relations with their neighbours, if they can. The new Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who still heads Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, announced on December 18 that one of his top priorities include building a "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia, an announcement that was designed to ease suspicion and fear across the Arab states in the Gulf about Iran's nuclear programme.

The Saudis have not responded, maintaining a diplomatic silence.