Thursday, July 20, 2006

Britain sees chance to contain Iran's regional ambitions

Bronwen Maddox, The Times Online:
BRITAIN blames Iran for the eruption of fighting in Lebanon and wants to use crisis talks to build an alliance for its long-term “containment”.

A new United Nations Security Council resolution on Iran’s nuclear programme, expected next week, will be the cornerstone of this strategy, according to senior British officials.

The plan, which echoes the “containment” of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, will aim to tap growing Arab alarm at Iran’s regional ambitions and its ability to stir up their own restive populations. READ MORE

The move reflects British frustration with the US’s failure to devise a plan for dealing with Tehran, once the Iraqi conflict stripped it of the appetite for military action.

It is “no coincidence” that last week’s raid by Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group, which triggered the conflict, immediately followed Iran’s declaration that it would not curb its nuclear work, officials believe.

During nuclear talks this year, Iran has threatened to escalate the “level of activity in the region” in response to UN pressure, an official said. In recent weeks, the violence in Iraq attributed to Shia militias has also soared. “Iran has maintained its arming of Shia militias, and may have stepped it up,” an official said. Hezbollah, a Shia militant group with close ties to Iran, has received huge help from Iran in building a massive arsenal, analysts say, and is thought unlikely to move against Iran’s interests.

Britain plans to use a flurry of talks next week to pursue the new strategy. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, will arrive in the region on Sunday and may return the following weekend. In between, there may be regional meetings, as well as the Security Council.

The council’s resolution is expected to make mandatory Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment, and to set a deadline, probably the end of August, with which it must comply. The council will also say that sanctions on Iran’s military industry could follow.

Britain will push allies to consider a wider “containment” plan. That could start with “soft” measures, such as the start of a Farsi television service, and curbs on travel, and include moves to encourage the flow of capital out of Iran. Tougher steps would focus on its arming of militant groups.

However, some analysts argue that governments should not overstate Iran’s role in Lebanon.