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Monday, 22 January 2007

20 January 2007

I imagine that, like me, you’ve noticed the sound of sabres being rattled this week. The question is: have they noticed in Tehran?

The answer, I think, is oh yes, they’ve noticed all right. As Condoleezza Rice shuttled her way round the Middle East, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fired off a letter to the Saudis suggesting that maybe they should get together to talk about Iraq.

Now, Iran and Saudi Arabia are not exactly soul-mates in the land of Islam. The Saudi royal family consider themselves the true defenders of Islam and its most holy places: after all, the king’s official title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (in Mecca and Medina). Iran, of course, is predominantly Shia – and Shia Muslims are regarded by Wahhabi or Salafi Sunni Muslims, which is what the Saudi royals are, as little better than heretics.

So it’s not often that they cosy up to compare notes about what’s going on in the neighbourhood. But that noise of sabres being rattled is definitely beginning to unsettle Tehran.

Here’s chief rattler Condoleezza Rice: “Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that we face is the policy of the Iranian regime, which is a policy of destabilisation of the world's most volatile and vulnerable region. And it's not just Iran's nuclear programme but also their support for terrorism around the world. They are, in effect, the central banker for terrorism around the world."

But surely, you will ask, the US is in no mood to embark on another high risk military adventure in the Middle East? And you will be right. Hence, the echo of more sabres being rattled in Israel, which is far more worried about a nuclear-capable Iran than it is about anything else. It’s got used to being the only nuclear power in the region, and doesn’t at all like the idea of there being a new kid on the nuclear block.

Here’s deputy chief rattler Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister: “The time is approaching when Israel and the world community will have to decide whether to take military action against Iran." And here’s Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni: “Iran is a threat not just to Israel, but to the entire region. Its goal is not just to wipe Israel off the map, but to remake the entire region." And here’s retired Israeli army chief artillery officer Brigadier General Oded Tira: “President Bush lacks the political power to attack Iran … If the Americans do not take military action against Iran, we'll do it ourselves.”

It seems no one realised that one of the consequences of getting rid of Saddam Hussein would inevitably be the strengthening of Iraq’s majority Shia, many of whose leaders had spent years in exile in neighbouring Iran. That makes Iran feel much more powerful than it used to – and it makes the Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Jordan break out in a cold sweat. Being Arab, they’re not too keen on Persian power either. I’d be misleading you if I said there was nothing to worry about.

But don’t ignore what’s going on in Iran itself. President Ahmadinejad, demagogue though he may seem, is not immune to domestic political pressure. He wasn’t elected because of his views on the Nazi Holocaust, but because he promised to do something about poverty. And the economy is still a mess, which means that members of parliament – especially after the elections late last year which were a disaster for the president – are now beginning openly to voice their dissatisfaction with his performance in office.

Would they dare to stick their heads over the parapet if they didn’t have some reason to suppose that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields the real power, might be sympathetic? Is it significant that a newspaper owned by the Ayatollah has appeared to criticise Ahmadinejad’s handling of the nuclear issue? I wonder …

So: do I think Israel is going to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities? Frankly, I don’t, but I’m sure the Americans and Israelis want officials in Tehran to think otherwise. And yes, I did notice that the group of elite nuclear scientists who have been looking after the so-called Doomsday Clock for the past 60 years (it’s meant to show how close we are to a nuclear Armageddon) have just moved the hands two minutes closer to midnight. The hands now stand at five minutes to – but hey, you can always look on the bright side: back in 1953, they were at two minutes to, and we’re still here.

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