TOPICS : How to silence that Iran war drumbeat

Increasing signs that either Israel or the US might attack Iran before President Bush leaves office have many people in Europe, the Middle East, and around the world on edge. Whether the rumblings are real or overinflated rumours, it’s time to reverse any momentum that could unleash a potentially calamitous Middle East conflict, killing thousands, sending oil prices to $200 a barrel and beyond, and accentuating global recession.

One immediate step the Bush administration could (but most probably won’t) take is to make absolutely clear its intensions regarding long-term presence in Iraq. Both Iraq — which is worried about its sovereignty — and Iran — worried about military threats — are anxious about the possibility of permanent US bases there. Washington has forsworn such bases, but further reassurances are needed.

More realistically, the most powerful and technologically advanced nations, including the US, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and China, should join in offering Iran much more cooperation in peaceful nuclear and other energy fields that would finally induce it to abandon uncontrolled enrichment of uranium or plutonium production and any related weapons programmes.

Iran made an official offer to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in May involving a package of “comprehensive negotiations” on everything from the nuclear issue to general disarmament and help toward a Palestinian-Israeli settlement. If this were taken seriously and acted on, the West could stymie Iran’s dangerous growing isolation. To ease tensions, both US presidential candidates should specifically renounce plans for permanent US bases and presence in Iraq. This would force Tehran and other neighbours to regard Iraq as a threat and provide incentive to speed nuclear weapons activity. The veracity of Iran’s protestations about its purely peaceful goals has been shadowed by the most recent report from UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA. Years of US and UN sanctions haven’t made Tehran change its policies. Why would it do so now?

In fact, some of the big Western banks have acceded to US demands to curb credits to Iran, hitting imports of products from refrigerators to children’s toys. But Iranian importers have now turned to Chinese and smaller Western banks. By defeating its enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Afghan Taliban, the US — helped by Iran in both cases — has greatly strengthened this power.

By reopening a US diplomatic mission in Tehran, dropping sanctions, and improving the old offers of Western and Russian IAEA-supervised peaceful nuclear technology, the US could help avert intensified tensions or an actual war. The wisest path to peace would be to encourage rather than discourage Western investment in Iran’s oil — natural gas and non-military industries — and engage immediately in direct, top-level talks Iran. We don’t have to further back ourselves into a corner, from which neither the West nor Iran is able to come out without a fight. — The Christian Science Monitor