The cold war has become warmer

Encouraged by US policy failures in the Middle East, Iran is taking a more robust stance

On 1 August, with much fanfare, the Iranian government announced that it would restart uranium conversion at its nuclear facility in the central city of Isfahan. The timing, coinciding with the inauguration of Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was intended to convey that the decision enjoyed broad political consensus, and was not merely a reflection of the shift in political power taking place. The suspension had been voluntary and, despite the theatrics involved, the Iranians were careful not to contravene any procedures laid down by the International Atomic Energy Agency, providing due warning and allowing for surveillance equipment to be put in place. None the less, despite assurances from the Iranian negotiators, and their counterparts in the west, that all concerned would like to maintain a dialogue, one got the distinct feeling, certainly from the media coverage, that the Rubicon had been crossed - and perhaps fatefully.

At almost the same time, Pakistan, a nuclear power which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), announced that it had successfully test-launched a new cruise missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Pakistan is apparently duty-bound to alert India of any such test-firing, but had concluded in this case that the missile did not qualify. Curiously, few people noticed, and apparently even fewer were bothered.

This contrast should remind us, if we needed to be reminded, that all our strained concentration on the details of uranium enrichment - the benefits of various fuel cycles, the precise numbers of centrifuges needed to build a bomb - miss the main point: this is fundamentally an extension of a wider political contest between Iran and the United States. Europeans have been struggling to transform this highly charged confrontation into a sober, "rational", even occasionally dull, legal dispute in which the detailed technicalities not only matter but are an essential precursor to a wider settlement. The Iranians, while showing an endearing capacity to match the Europeans detail for detail, had their eyes firmly fixed on the broader political settlement and always regarded the Europeans as necessary proxies for the United States. In other words, this was never a straightforward bilateral negotiation, but a more complex trilateral one in which the main player never entered the room, but hovered conspicuously behind the scenes, seemingly supportive yet more often than not disruptive.

The European position was relatively simple in construction, but difficult to co-ordinate. Basically, Iran had broken the terms of the NPT by not fully divulging its nuclear activities and the case could, in consequence, be sent to the UN Security Council. Iran acknowledged the breaches, but argued that the secretive nature of its programme had been owing to the failure of the nuclear powers themselves to collaborate on civil nuclear technology, in clear breach of the NPT. In the after- math of the Iraq invasion, the prospect of Tehran being referred to the Security Council was attractive neither to Iran nor to the Europeans, for whom another crisis would be unsustainable. Forceful persuasion would be used to encourage the Iranians to adhere to international treaties.

Unfortunately, this strategy depended on a respect for the inviolability of international law and, following the Iraq war, this position looked less than sustainable. Indeed, the consistent threat of "regime change" served completely to undermine the European position, which itself hardened in order to deflect and disarm the US. This was best exemplified by the leaked news that the E3 (Britain, France and Germany) were demanding that Iran permanently cease any uranium enrichment activity. Although this might serve to pacify the US, the decision to make the position public ensured that a negotiating detail became a point of principle and, in Iran's case, a nationalist cause. In dip-lomatic terms, it was a mistake which ensured that a legal dispute taking place confidentially within the IAEA corridors in Vienna was restored to its political fundamentals. In effect, the negotiations had ended and the battle of wills had begun.

It is a clash of wills that a new breed of Iranian politician, formed by the struggles of the Iran-Iraq war, is keen to contest. The negotiations coincided with the eclipse of Iran's reformists by the conservatives - who in turn are now marginalised by the Iranian neoconservatives. Like their US counterparts, they are brash, self-confident, hardline and partial to myth. And both distrust international law.

The vice that threatened to crush the European strategy has finally closed. Encouraged by the failures of US policy in the Middle East, a more robust Iranian position is emerging, heavily clothed in the rhetoric of nationalism. The cold war has suddenly become a little warmer.

Ali M Ansari is reader in modern history at the University of St Andrews and an associate fellow of the Middle East Programme, Chatham House