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Friday, 17 August 2007

17 August 2007

Yes, I’m back from my break, and yes, thanks, I had a lovely time. I managed to keep in touch with events, of course, with the help of my trusty laptop and wonderful BBC News online – but thank goodness nothing much ever happens in August.

I gather there was just a bit of flooding (was it 20 million people affected across south Asia?), a spot of foot-and-mouth; a touch of turbulence on the world stock markets; several more British casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan – oh yes, and something about a great white shark that wasn’t photographed off the coast of Cornwall.

And guess what: Iran is back in the news. Two developments you may have missed during all the storm dramas (both financial and meteorological) of the past few days -- although you won't have missed them if you've been listening to the programme this week: the US is said to be about to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a “foreign terrorist organisation”, and Washington has just signed a new military assistance deal with Israel that’s worth some $30 billion over the next 10 years.

That’s an increase of about 25 per cent over current levels – and the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, says it will help to preserve his country's military advantage over other countries in the Middle East, ie Iran. (Incidentally, Washington is also providing generous military assistance to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Gulf states. What do they all have in common? They all have reason to fear Iran.)

I remember when the Cold War ended in 1989, analysts started asking who would turn out to be the new enemy of the West. (I’m no psychologist, but there seems to be a primitive human need to define ourselves at least in part by who our enemies are.) At first, Islam seemed to be the most likely choice. But now, our governments’ fears appear to be more focused: they don’t so much fear an entire religion, rather they fear the aggressive political manifestation of one branch of that religion, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Washington claims to have irrefutable evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are deeply involved in the surreptitious acquisition of nuclear technology, and are financing, equipping and training Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and a variety of militia groups in Iraq. They also, of course, were responsible for the capture of the 15 British marines and naval personnel in the Gulf last March.

But what good will calling them terrorists do? Well, it would enable the US to seize any of their assets that happen to be within US jurisdiction, and it would enable Washington to take action against any US company that does business with the Guards or their commercial front organisations. And, of course, it would be a way to ratchet up the pressure on the UN Security Council to agree to tougher sanctions against Tehran.

There have been signs for many months now in Tehran of strains within the government between those who favour opening up to the West and trying to defuse some of the current tensions, and those close to the mercurial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who prefer a more confrontational approach. There is a parallel debate in Western capitals between those who say the time for sweet-talking is over (the European Union tried “constructive dialogue” for years, but seems now pretty much to have given up), and those who insist that it is still more sensible to engage with the so-called “moderate” elements in Tehran. I wonder which approach you would favour?

By the way, on the subject of stock market turmoil, have you noticed that even after all the recent talk of crises and collapses, the current level of the FTSE-100 index (at time of writing, mid-morning on Friday) is just about exactly where it was a year ago? I sometimes wonder if we get a bit over-excited about these things.

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