Iran is playing a dangerous game in refusing to answer clearly that it does not have a military nuclear programme. Image Credit: Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News

The Obama administration may have abandoned its early goal of engaging with Ahmadinejad, but it hopes that sanctions will persuade Iran to prove to the international community that it does not have a nuclear weapons programme. But even this last element of peaceful diplomacy is under serious attack, as the hawks in Washington make common cause with the Israeli lobby to push for military action.

The Israeli lobby group, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), held its annual conference in Washington this week, and attracted a very high level of speakers and interest in what they had to say. Most of the attention focused on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that Israel is allowed to continue building colonies on the West Bank. But despite the apparent disagreement over colonies, consensus is building that Iran is a real danger and military action may be required to deal with it.

Israel seems to have succeeded in convincing American policy makers that Iran is a direct threat to the US, and also that Israel is the only country in the Middle East able to do something about this. This dangerous combination of agreement on both the danger that Iran poses and Israel's potential role in reacting to that perceived danger emerged in several speeches this week.

It was not surprising that Netanyahu led the charge. In his speech he repeatedly harped on fears of "radical Islam" and its wish "to annihilate Israel". He quoted Iran's government as saying "Israel is a one-bomb country" and he added that Hezbollah has said that "if all the Jews gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide". Netanyahu used quotes like these to build an emotional case that the world should "act swiftly and decisively" to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He added that if the world does not act, Israel reserves the right to act on its own.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stuck to the Obama administration line when she told AIPAC that the administration will not countenance military action and will use sanctions instead. In a hard-hitting speech designed to reassure Israel in the middle of the row over colonies, Clinton said Iran's leaders must know there are "real consequences" for not proving their nuclear activities are peaceful and that "our aim is not incremental sanctions, but sanctions that will bite."

However she moved on to a very different emotional tone when she said, "Let me be very clear: The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," adding that if Iran developed a nuclear weapon, it would be "unacceptable". "Unacceptable to the United States. Unacceptable to Israel. Unacceptable to the region and the international community."

This broadly phrased language seemed to open the administration to almost any action beyond sanctions, including military action. This was made clear in several speeches, including one from Chuck Schumer, a leading Democrat senator who is a close ally of Obama's. He took the agenda a lot further when he told AIPAC that "diplomacy has failed" on Iran, which was a surprising comment on a policy to which Obama and Clinton are both committed.


Then things took an almost bizarre turn when Tony Blair told AIPAC in his present role as the Quartet's Middle East envoy that the world should do "whatever it takes" to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. It seemed like a rerun of 2002, when Bush and Blair were running around the world justifying an attack on Saddam Hussain's Iraq.

Blair had no requirement to toe the administration line, so was able to spell out that sanctions cannot be the limit of allied action. "Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capability. Iran must know that we will do whatever it takes to stop them getting it," he said. Blair's readiness to move to military action was a frightening reminder that military action has serious consequences. His blind support for Bush's invasion of Iraq, without a plan for rebuilding the nation after the invasion, is a miserable precedent from which to call for "whatever it takes" to stop Iran.

Iran is playing a dangerous game in refusing to answer clearly that it does not have a military nuclear programme. Ahmadinejad's government is wrong to reject the extra requirements that the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the world powers have all asked for. Iran should make clear that it does not have a nuclear weapons programme.

But the world's response to this intransigence should not be military action, even if Israel would like that very much. Israel knows that such action would cause serious rifts between the US and its Arab allies, which would reinforce Israel's position with the Obama administration. But this is only in the short term.

In the end, genuine peace in the Middle East will not be achieved by military raids on Iranian nuclear sites. It will be achieved by engagement, even when the two sides have very different views of the world and conflicting interests. It is important that those who are working for a calmer region stand up to the warmongers in Tel Aviv, and in Washington.