x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Amid pressure, a conciliatory Iran emerges

The latest signals from Iran have been confusingly positive. If this is more than a coincidence, it should be welcomed – warily.

The foreign policy of Iran is often truculent but can also be confusing, both to outsiders and, we suspect, to many of the officials within the maze-like hierarchy of Iran's leadership. This week, though, the signals being sent from Tehran suddenly veered towards being reasonable, even civil. The question now is what this all means.

It has been a season of bluster and tension between Tehran and Washington - and between Tehran and other capitals. The US accused Iran of plotting to kill a Saudi diplomat. The UK embassy in Tehran was ransacked; policemen just watched. Another mysterious explosion hit an Iranian nuclear-development site. A high official of the powerful Revolutionary Guards said Iran would respond to "any threat" from Turkey by targeting Nato missile defences there. A US drone aircraft fell out of Iran's airspace. A legislator rattled his sword at Saudi Arabia (and the world's oil buyers) by speaking of closing the Strait of Hormuz.

But now, suddenly, Tehran's tone is different. The intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, went to Riyadh for a high-level meeting aimed at easing tensions. The idea of sealing the Strait was repudiated. The foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, spoke of "deep brotherhood and friendship" with Turkey. Iran followed the Saudi lead at this week's meeting on Opec quotas. And there were rare bilateral talks between Abu Dhabi and Tehran.

All of this may be coincidence; these are only a few straws in a faint breeze. But the hope of change is tantalising. Is one faction suddenly ascendant within Iran's convoluted power structure? Is the ever-tighter pinch of western-backed sanctions moderating official thinking?

Whatever their origins, these hints of a new approach are certainly welcome. Iran has in many ways been a rogue state. Anything that helps bring it into the polity of nations is good for all.

This is not to say that sanctions can now be eased, or Iran's unstated but obvious nuclear ambitions accepted. We have seen too many previous feints, delays, and obfuscations. Indeed if sanctions are altering Tehran's approach, this is no time to scrap them.

But Iran's hard-line has been bad for everyone, including its people. We can only hope that this week's developments are signals of a more responsible approach to the world.