Power and influence of Iran now stronger

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Iran is outplaying the US on the international chess board, a new report argues. If so, what, asks political editor Chris Fisher, is the US going to do to turn the tables?And the winner, so far, of the US-led war on terror is … Iran.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

And the winner, so far, of the US-led war on terror is … Iran. That is the verdict of the greatly respected Chatham House think tank (otherwise known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs). And it is hard to disagree.

Iran's power and influence in and beyond the Middle East is certainly stronger than on September 11, 2001. At that time, the Taliban - a rival to Iran's rulers - was in power in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein, who had fought a very nasty eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s, still ruled Iraq with a road of iron. It was also still assumed then that Israel would get the better of any force in the region that challenged its military might and territorial integrity.

The political landscape around Iran looks very different now. The Taliban has been driven from power, and though it has not been eliminated - and British forces are currently seriously engaged in trying to stop its resurgence - it currently poses no threat to Iran. Saddam is also out of office and is on trial. And instead of peacefully enjoying the democratic processes that were planned, and which much of the country's population voted for, Iraq has plunged into vicious sectarian strife that suits, among others, sinister Shi-ite forces allied to and encouraged by the Iranian regime.

In south Lebanon, moreover, the Israelis have just found Hezbollah - sponsored principally by Iran - an extremely hard nut to crack, and their country is now on a rack of recrimination and unaccustomed self-doubt.

Those in the Middle East who admire Hezbollah's success are also favourably impressed by Iran's background role. Its prestige is on the rise. And in such circumstances, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerics and politicians behind him can feel all the more confident about pressing on with their nuclear ambitions and running rings round the United Nations.

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Iran has refused to give international inspectors access to an underground uranium enrichment facility - a deeply ominous signal, one might suppose, that it is preparing to acquire nuclear weapons rather than, as it maintains, develop nuclear power to generate electricity.

Such a sign stands out by its lack of ambiguity. Normally the Iranians opt for equivocation on this issue. And that approach was maintained on Tuesday when they responded to the UN's carrots and sticks package on uranium enrichment. The reply was neither one of acquiescence or defiance, but was somewhere in between. In a word, it was fudge.

The strategy is to string the UN along by making moves that hint at concessions, but which are really meaningless. And the calculation is that the UN will be unwilling to do anything apart from giving a slap over the wrist with economic and diplomatic sanctions that can be easily evaded.

Iran knows that the Russians and the Chinese don't want to come down hard on them. And they also know that

the UN is a spiritual home for

people who are averse to following fine words with action. Saddam was well aware of that too, and he was well practised in giving the UN the run-around. His experience of that led to some great miscalculations - and finally to the invasion of his country by the US and Britain and his removal of power.

The Iranians may now be falling into similar misjudgement. Paralysis at the UN doesn't mean it will be allowed to purse a trail leading to nuclear weapons. At least two countries, the US and Israel, might well be prepared to intervene heavily to prevent it. But in the case of the US, there is also cause for doubting that. It has been burnt by the failures in Iraq, and the American people are going to take some persuading that war against Saddam should be followed by war against Iran.

On the other hand, no-one - and especially Iran's rulers - should forget that president Bush will not be facing his electorate again, and that he could go out with a bang in more than one sense.

He and close advisers cannot but be aware that US policy towards Iran has been profoundly unsuccessful. One wonders whether privately they might agree with Chatham House that Iran has superseded the US as the most influential power in the Middle East. Might there even be a nagging doubt that in going to war in Iraq they targeted the wrong country?

Any suggestion of major military action against Iran will be anathema to many people in this country. Some people - and such thinking is occasionally registered in this paper's letter column - will even ask what is so dreadful about the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons when the US, Britain, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan and Israel have them?

It's the equivalent of someone asking in 1933: "What's so bad about Hitler getting tanks and aircraft like the

ones Britain has?" Hitler's logic belonged in a madhouse, and much

the same can be said of some of the people in power in Tehran. Mr Ahmadinejad denies that the Nazi holocaust took place, but also talks of wiping Israel off the map. He and his ilk are religious fundamentalists with ideas stuck in a timewarp that has lasted more than a millennium. And there is concern that they might think it their religious duty to bring death and destruction to the non-Muslim world, even at the expense of devastation to their own country.

It has also been said by Chatham House that the US has been playing poker and the Iranians chess. Maybe. No people play chess better than the Russians, and it didn't stop the US overcoming the Soviet Union. Which is not to suggest that getting the Iranians into checkmate will be anything less than very difficult.