x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Diplomacy on Iran to go with US naval force

US military deployments to the Arabian Gulf are best understood as a diplomatic move, not a purely military one.

In the US elections season, conservative commentators have accused President Barack Obama of bending over backwards to avoid war with Iran, as if a preference for diplomacy were a sin. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, went on the attack recently spending two days - an eternity in today's hyperactive media environment - criticising Mr Obama's foreign policy.

This week brought more news that is certain to rouse the hawks: the US military build up continues in the Arabian Gulf. The US Navy has confirmed plans to station a 46-year-old warship as a floating command centre, and will also deploy unmanned submersible mine sweepers.

The military preparations - and posturing, to be sure - will concern everyone in the region, with the tragedy of the Iraq War so recent, and the continuing atrocities in Syria. In a season of Arab uprisings, a further destabilising war is the last thing the region needs, irrespective of the clamour of hawks cosseted in the halls of Washington.

For rational players in this drama over Iran's nuclear programme, a war is clearly against the interests of everyone involved. And, contrary to public statements, even the hawks in Washington, Tehran and Tel Aviv are cognisant of the risks. The American massing of forces is meant to send an unambiguous signal that will influence Iran's behaviour and avert the very conflict that is being threatened.

Iranians, for the most part, realise that their leaders' hardline stance is hurting the country. The National has been banned in the country after reporting on an Iranian poll, in which 63 per cent of respondents favoured suspending uranium enrichment in return for the easing of sanctions. In a bungled attempt to censor the results, officials then claimed - improbably - that the poll had been rigged by the BBC.

Diplomatic and economic pressures continue to offer the best chance of forcing Iran to open its nuclear file. A growing list of economic sanctions, travel restrictions and oil embargoes - including new US and EU measures that went into effect at the beginning of this month - are severely affecting the economy.

But the alternative to war is further dialogue. Iran's leaders must have an exit option to compromise with the international community, or this warlike posture could tip the region into an almost accidental conflict.

A nuclear-armed Iran is not in the region's interests, but neither are war planes over Natanz. Plainly speaking, Iran could not hope to win a conflict, or even keep the Strait of Hormuz closed, against the combined military might of the US and its regional allies, including the UAE. But that is a conflict that everyone would lose.