Iran will be the test

The spectacular end to Brown's honeymoon has prompted speculation over his foreign policy - how crit

From the moment he stepped into No 10, Gordon Brown has used foreign policy as a means of demarcating his leadership from that of Tony Blair, especially when it comes to the so-called "war on terror". Not much has changed in substance, particularly in Iraq, but in terms of sentiment and presentation, his approach has been far from the former PM's obsequious instant support for policy initiatives and announcements by the Bush administration - even when they contradicted long-held British diplomatic principles in the Middle East.

In the summer, Brown's talk of British troop withdrawals from Iraq irritated Washington. Then David Miliband went to Pakistan and Afghanistan on his first trip abroad as Foreign Secretary, rightly arguing that it was in that region, not Iraq, that the outcome of the war on terror would be determined, despite President George W Bush's continued insistence to the contrary. All this was music to the ears of the Labour Party and the country, both desperate for a prime minister who didn't seem to be so automatically supportive of anything emanating from the White House. But there is one critical area in which Brown and his government have given almost no indication of differing from the Bush administration: Iran.

The role the British government is playing in confronting Iran militarily has been largely ignored - yet the stakes could not be higher. The huge volume of leaks and briefings to journalists in Washington and Baghdad over the past four months demonstrates that the Bush administration has given up trying to achieve international diplomatic backing for facing down Iran over its alleged nuclear programme. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, has spoken openly of the disastrous effect military action would have, both on non-proliferation and on the whole region. China, Russia and the European powers have made it clear they don't support further sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile the White House has focused all its efforts on seeking justification for a military strike on the grounds of counterterrorism.

First came the US's highly provocative step in declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps a terrorist organisation - akin to deciding the national army of a UN member state is a terrorist force. This has been underpinned by almost completely unverifiable claims that Iran is providing specialised anti-tank weapons to insurgents in Iraq. This has gone mostly unchallenged by the western media, despite the at times laughable evidence presented to selected journalists in Baghdad on condition of anonymity.

Next came the US decision to build a military base on the Iraq-Iran border to monitor and forcibly stop movement of men and materiel by the Revolutionary Guard. Finally, the first weekend of this month, came the extraordinary claim by the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, that Iran's ambassador to Baghdad, a man with whom US officials have held bilateral talks over the past three months, is in fact a senior member of the Revolutionary Guard (again, no evidence provided).

Whitehall has actively briefed and leaked along exactly the same lines as Washington about Iranian military forces having had a direct hand in deaths of British troops in southern Iraq. We have also continued to accuse Iran's national institutions of in effect supporting terrorism in Iraq. We have recently gone even further, sending our soldiers to join the Americans in patrolling and enforcing the Iranian border. Last month, Brigadier James Bashall, commander of 1 Mechanised Brigade, based in Basra, gave an interview to the Independent in which he said: "We have been asked [by the Americans] to help . . . and I am willing to do so." This is a huge change in policy that has gone almost completely unnoticed.

Despite all the appearances of how different Brown is from Blair in foreign affairs, the reality is very different. This past week's spectacular end to Brown's honeymoon has made people begin to examine the substance of his foreign policy, not just in spinning the number of troops that will actually be withdrawn from Iraq, but over the wider question of how critical and independent he will be. We are joined at the hip with the Bush administration over Iran. We are using the same arguments about counterterrorism and a military strike. We are using the same dodgy evidence of weapons being supplied to Iraqi insurgents. We've even specifically sent troops to the Iranian border. Iran will be the issue on which we will see how much has really changed.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power