Middle East: Atomic agitation

Just over a month ago, a group of veteran US and Israeli diplomats met at Harvard to play out scenarios for one of the most momentous issues facing the world this year – Iran’s nuclear programme.

In the simulation, as in real life, the stakes were high. If Iran comes within reach of a nuclear weapon – as Washington and its allies fear – the power map of the Middle East will alter, the rules that have held back atomic proliferation for decades may be damaged beyond repair and the US and Israel will see a bitter foe empowered as never before. Not least, US President Barack Obama will also have failed on a key foreign policy objective.

The result of the Harvard simulation was not promising for the White House. Tehran emerged the victor, ending 2010 closer to the bomb, with a western push for sanctions backfiring, and Russia and China talking to Iran behind their partners’ backs.

As Robert Gates, US defence secretary, caustically remarked recently: “There are no good options” on Iran.

For all that, the moment of decision long dreaded by Washington has finally arrived. Mr Obama campaigned for the presidency on the idea of “engagement” with Tehran, and took office emphasising his willingness to negotiate without conditions over the nuclear programme and other issues. But he also said he would judge the effectiveness of his policy by the end of 2009. That time is now past: today the president is left contemplating the failure of his … >>>

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