Page last updated at 13:56 GMT, Wednesday, 22 October 2008 14:56 UK

Election and economy 'calm Iran policy'

By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

It used to be conventional wisdom that the current US administration would want to deal with Iran's nuclear programme on its watch, before President George W Bush leaves office.

Iranian missiles on display in Tehran, September 2008
The spectre of conflict with Iran has receded in recent months

A military strike was all the more likely if it looked as though the Democrats might win the race for the White House, so the argument went.

More hawkish voices in the Bush team would not trust a President Barack Obama to handle Iran with sufficient toughness, and would either push for US action or encourage the Israelis to strike first.

After any Iranian riposte, US forces themselves might go into action.

But in recent weeks and months the mood has changed dramatically. While Iran continues to make progress in its nuclear activities the likelihood of any imminent military attack against its facilities is receding.

Fear of turmoil

Political, strategic and economic factors have all played a part.

For one thing there is still significant debate about how much progress Iran has made in its enrichment activities and how close it might be to a position where it could manufacture sufficient enriched material for a bomb.

Much will depend upon how the new US administration, with all the myriad problems that it faces, will grapple with Iran

Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has made it clear that in his view Iran is still some way away from having the necessary capabilities for a weapons programme - if, that is, it wants one.

And while Israeli experts are divided, some also believe that there is still time to see if diplomacy can work.

Within the Bush administration the tensions between hawks and the more pragmatic voices seem to have reached a stalemate.

Perhaps the president himself does not want to leave as his legacy a Middle East in even greater turmoil.

Accordingly Washington has made its opposition to an imminent Israeli attack against Iran crystal clear.

Indeed the recent American decision to supply Israel with an advanced early warning radar system - to be manned by Americans - is intended, paradoxically, both to strengthen Israel's defences while restricting its freedom of action, independent from Washington.

Anxious wait

Israel's new prime minister-designate, Tzipi Livni, who is still trying to form a governing coalition, has set a number of policy reviews running in the foreign ministry and all signs point to any military strike against Iran being pushed back to a later date.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (l) and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iran's aim in policy is unclear, as key religious leaders do not speak publicly

Israel is well aware that in due course it will have to live with a new US administration - one that in some ways would be unfamiliar with the region - and it wants to start off on the best basis possible.

A war with Iran would not be an auspicious beginning.

Above all else there is the global financial crisis. With the US and other western economies under pressure and the ramifications spreading around the world the last thing anyone needs, especially the Americans, is a new crisis in the Middle East to send oil prices skyrocketing and to sap confidence even further.

Indeed in the views of some analysts the economic crisis could offer a small silver lining.

Iran is already deeply concerned about the recent fall in oil prices. If they fall further its economy could be in an even greater mess, setting the scene perhaps for a situation where international economic action might begin to have an effect.

Much will depend upon how the new US administration, with all the myriad problems that it faces, will grapple with Iran.

It will make a huge difference who wins next month. And until then many of the key international diplomatic problems are in a kind of holding pattern, everyone waiting to see what the US voters will decide and what this will mean for US foreign policy in 2009 and going forward.

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