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Washington diary: Reacting to Iran

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

There have been many unforeseen and unintended consequences of the success of Barack Obama's campaign.

Iran test-launches a Shahab-3 missile
Will Iran's missile-test lead to an escalation of hostilities?

We have seen a growing interest in the Kenyan Luo tribe of Mr Obama's father.

There has been a forensic analysis of the true meaning of fist bumps - for those of you have forgotten, he performed one with his wife Michelle before giving his victory speech in St Paul last month.

And then there is this week's obsessive discussion about Jesse Jackson's off-mike, off-colour comments and what they tell you - once again - about the race debate in America.

Some consequences are silly, others are serious, but until this week, war with Iran had not been one of them.

What changed everything was the test-firing of Shahab 3 missiles, with enough range potentially to hit Israel, into the sands of Persia.

Israeli strike

A number of analysts in Israel and the United States have fleshed out the theory that Mr Obama's increasing popularity and real chance of winning the election hastens the possibility of an Israeli or even US air-strike against Iran.

Here is the argument: an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities is impossible without the overt or covert co-operation, if not active involvement, of the US.

If Israel were to launch such a strike, as it did against Iraq's nuclear reactor in Osirak in 1981, it would have to do so with America's green light.

Israeli jets would have to fly through airspace controlled by the Pentagon.

[Iran's] tests were no doubt a deafening plea for attention from a regime that fears it is not being taken seriously enough

Senator Obama has said that he would rather talk to Iran without preconditions than inch towards a military option.

So if you do not believe in the potential for diplomacy, if you are convinced that Iran's words and commitments are not worth the sweet mint tea over which they might be negotiated, if you are certain that Iran is intent on making nukes - and many sober, serious-minded people in this city are - and if you believe that Obama will be the next president, then the window of opportunity for a strike closes after Inauguration Day.

How many people with their fingers on triggers actually believe this scenario is open to debate?

Seymour Hersh, the influential New Yorker journalist, believes that Vice-President Dick Cheney is the school's founding father.

Mr Cheney probably believes the Israelis agree with him.

And the Israelis believe that the Iranians fear it, which is why they were scared enough to back up their usual defiant words with missile tests this week.

Rallying the Iranians

The tests were no doubt a deafening plea for attention from a regime that fears it is not being taken seriously enough.

It is also possible that some in Tehran think only a military strike from Israel and/or the US can rally the country behind an increasingly unpopular president who has failed to distil $140-or-so per barrel of crude into economic prosperity, and faces re-election next June.

The danger here is that there is a pyramid of plausible but so far unproven beliefs which could lead to some disastrous decisions.

If the fear in Israel or in the White House of Iran getting nukes is greater than the fear of a more conventional war over Iran, then a conflict becomes more likely.

The next few months will probably tell us whether we have reached that point.

Barack Obama
If elected, Mr Obama has pledged to pursue diplomacy with Iran

The messages coming out of Iran are - as ever - mixed.

On the one hand, the Revolutionary Guard vows retaliation for any strike.

On the other hand, the Foreign Ministry plans to hold talks with Javier Solana, the EU envoy, about the mixed package of carrots and sticks, of punishment and incentives, that is the basis of Western policy towards Iran.

The messages from Washington are equally muddled.

Officially the administration says that "all options are on the table".

Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen appeared to go out of their way to declare publicly that an Israeli strike would have serious consequences and that there is no military solution to this issue.

World War I

From Washington to Tehran we are all in a terrible muddle.

Vali Nasr, an Iran expert from the Council on Foreign Relations, told me the situation reminded him of the run up to World War I, when there was a witch's brew of competing geo-political interests, a system of alliances and proxy powers and a lack of frank communication that allowed the wheels of war to be set in motion.

The spark that led to the unintended consequence of World War I was the assassination of Austria's Crown Prince Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

The analogy is probably - hopefully - far-fetched.

But why risk it?

Forgive me, Senor Solana, but the only dialogue that matters in this crisis is the one between Washington and Tehran.

A few years ago North Korea launched its own plea for attention by test-firing the Taepodong missiles AND testing its first nukes.

After the initial shock and condemnation, America obliged Kim Jong Il by pressing on with the six-party talks and just last month President Bush hailed a deal with North Korea which involves them verifiably scrapping their nuclear programme and the US providing them with energy, food and access to international markets.

It was a rare diplomatic triumph for the Bush administration.

Why not try the same with Tehran?

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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