‘If we do not act, we face a nuclear-armed Iran or a new Middle East confrontation’

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It is no coincidence that talk of “a new Cold War” between Russia and the West has generated a good deal of interest in Teheran and Damascus.

Iran and Syria are under sustained pressure. They are so isolated that each is the only formal ally of the other, although they are not natural bedfellows. Syria has shown some signs of beginning to bend, engaging in indirect peace talks with Israel and taking some steps to improve control of its border with Iraq. France feted President Assad in Paris in July, and President Sarkozy reciprocated with a visit to Damascus last month.

Western countries do need to conduct a sustained dialogue with Syria but without any illusions about its policies. Its openings to the West may have as much to do with a stagnant economy and domestic woes as with international pressure. And Damascus has not yet converted from its old ways: it still shelters Hamas, arms Hizbollah and rules by fear.

Some in Damascus might hope that a “new Cold War” would focus Western attention away from the Middle East and on to Russia, and allow an unreformed Syria to shelter under Russian patronage. This could be what Assad had in mind when he visited Russia as the invasion of Georgia was under way, describing Russia’s actions as a “response to provocation”, while seeking Russian promises to supply his regime with new military hardware.

For Iran, a far bigger player in the region, the benefits of a new Cold War might appear even greater. Sanctions are harming its economy and affecting its restive population. Two neighbouring regimes have been overthrown by US-led coalitions in the past seven years, and it knows it could be next.

Members of an Iranian parliamentary committee recently suggested that Iran should offer to co-operate with Russia “in a new round of the Cold War” in return for Russian support on Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran made its own overtures to Russia during the Georgia crisis, despatching President Ahmadinejad to meet President Medvedev. Iran has always seen Russia as its most likely ally on the UN Security Council, and Russia could veto the imposition of sanctions if it so wished. Russia also has significant economic interests in Iran. Over the past two decades Iran has ordered an estimated $4bn of Russian hardware, technology and services, making it one of the largest buyers of Russian military equipment.

However, anyone in Teheran or Damascus with hopes of a major new strategic alliance with Russia is likely to be disappointed. Syria is just too small a player. And whatever the noises coming from the Kremlin, Russia’s strategic interests would be damaged by a nuclear-armed Iran. At a time when so many of its global interests are at play, Iran is unlikely to be accorded a high priority in Russia’s calculations.

In Iran even those who accept that Moscow will not be riding to the rescue still think the Georgia crisis could be turned to Iran’s benefit. Some Iranian commentators have suggested that Iran would benefit even more from an energy dispute between Russia, the US and the EU. An Iranian newspaper recently suggested that rivalry between the West and Russia would force Europeans and others to come cap in hand to Tehran as an alternative source of oil and gas, implying that an energy crisis would let Iran off the nuclear hook.

It is therefore crucial that we do not lose sight of Iran while dealing with the crisis in Georgia, which has already exacerbated existing difficulties in our diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear programme. The Security Council members should now be preparing the next round of sanctions on Iran, which are already overdue. Yet no new sanctions are in sight.

This delay comes at a price. Iran is on the verge of being able to enrich uranium to the level needed for a nuclear weapon. As we get closer to this point of no return, the risk of military confrontation increases too.

We cannot allow our diplomacy on Iran to be held hostage by events in Georgia. As I have long argued, if the Security Council cannot agree new sanctions soon, other like-minded countries must act. European nations, which have been painfully slow to impose sanctions, should take steps to ban investment in new Iranian oil and gas, consider proscribing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation, formally end the practice of subsidising trade with Iran through export credit guarantees and extend the financial isolation of the Iranian regime. These steps are urgently needed if we are not to lose the last remaining chance of persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

If we do not act, we face the prospect of either a nuclear-armed Iran, smashing the non-proliferation treaty and imperilling Israel, or a new military confrontation in the Middle East with far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. Far from being a frozen conflict like the one that triggered the crisis in Georgia, this would be a “hot” conflict, with the prospect of Iranian-backed terrorism in Israel or even Europe, refugee flows destabilising a great swathe of the Middle East and an all-out Iranian rush to produce a nuclear weapon.

If European leaders to do not wake up to the urgency of the situation now, they may live to rue the day.