Tony Blair has declared himself at odds with hawks in the US Administration by saying publicly for the first time that it would be wrong to take military action against Iran.
The Prime Minister’s comments came hours before the UN’s nuclear watchdog raised the stakes in the West’s showdown with Tehran.
The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Iran had expanded its nuclear programme, defying UN demands for it to be suspended. Hundreds of uranium-spinning centrifuges in an underground hall are expected to be increased to thousands by May when Iran moves to “industrial-scale production”.
Senior British government sources have told The Times that they fear President Bush will seek to “settle the Iranian question through military means” next year, before the end of his second term if he concludes that diplomacy has failed. “He will not want to leave it unresolved for his successor,” said one.
But there are deep fissures within the US Administration. Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, who has previously called for direct talks with Tehran, is said to be totally opposed to military action.
Although he has dispatched a second US aircraft carrier to the Gulf, he is understood to believe that airstrikes would inflame Iranian public opinion and hamper American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One senior adviser to Mr Gates has even stated privately that military action could lead to Congress impeaching Mr Bush.
Condoleeza Rice, the Secretary of State, is also opposed to using force, while Steve Hadley, the President’s National Security Adviser, is said to be deeply sceptical.
The hawks are led by Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, who is urging Mr Bush to keep the military option “on the table”. He is also pressing the Pentagon to examine specific war plans — including, it is rumoured, covert action.
But Mr Blair, in a BBC interview yesterday, said: “I can’t think that it would be right to take military action against Iran . . . What is important is to pursue the political, diplomatic channel. I think it is the only way that we are going to get a sensible solution to the Iranian issue.”
The diplomatic options will be on the table on Monday when representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany meet in London to begin drafting a new resolution.
It was notable that Mr Blair’s remarks yesterday closely resembled those of Jack Straw last year, who said that an attack on Iran was “inconceivable”, angering Washington and perhaps contributing to his removal as Foreign Secretary.
The Prime Minister’s comments reflect what British officials have been saying privately for some time, but also show a growing streak of independence from Mr Bush. The White House was unhappy with the timing of Mr Blair’s announcement this week on withdrawing 1,600 British troops, concerned that it undercut Mr Bush’s efforts to shore up support for his troop surge on Capitol Hill while sending out “mixed messages” to the Iranians.
Britain has also privately expressed concern over the handling of the US military briefing last week which alleged that the “highest levels” of the Iranian Government were behind the supply of weapons to Iraqi militias.