| 20.4°C Dublin

Is Bush getting ready to do it again in Iran?

Nuclear weapons standoff echoes 'weapons of mass destruction' row, writes Anton la Guardia

THE corridors of the UN are reverberating to an old drumbeat: weapons of mass destruction, regime change, American military action and the 'consequences' for a Middle Eastern country that defies the will of the world.

President Bush's fighting talk this week won't do much for frayed nerves. In 2003, it was Iraq. Now Iran has become the focus of international, and more worryingly, Mr Bush's attention. Whatever happens in New York, the outcome is unlikely to be much better than the disaster in Iraq.

"It looks so deja vu," said Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister who was a central figure in the drama over the invasion of Iraq.

Yet in many ways, the crisis over Iran is more alarming than that over Iraq. The reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) make clear that Teheran is much closer to having the ability to make nuclear weapons than Saddam Hussein had ever been. Calls by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Israel to be 'wiped off the map' - and his visions of the return of the Hidden Imam - have convinced many that Iran must never become a nuclear power.

America and Israel reserve the right to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. But the reality is that America, and the West in general, is in a much weaker position than it was when it removed Saddam, to the extent that the Iranian regime feels more than able to confront the West. At last week's IAEA meeting in Vienna, Iranian officials disdainfully passed up the last chance to avoid being taken to the UN Security Council and issued a clear threat: "The United States has the power to cause us harm and pain. But the United States is also susceptible to harm and pain. So if that is the path that the US wishes to choose - let the ball roll."

Such menaces should not be taken lightly. Iran is the world's fourth-largest oil producer, dominates the Gulf, has the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, supports a network of militant groups and has strong influence in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran is too big, populous and mountainous for America to consider an Iraq-style invasion. Limited strikes would at best set back the Iranian nuclear programme, but may well strengthen the regime by provoking nationalist outrage.

So for the moment, Washington has chosen the political route. After three years of manoeuvring in the IAEA in Vienna, the issue has moved to the UN thanks to some agile American diplomacy, European alarm about Teheran's intentions, and Mr Ahmadinejad's uncanny ability to antagonise even Iran's friends.

Mohammed ElBaradei, the IAEA director-general who dared question America's false claims that Saddam had a secret nuclear programme, is now being called on to pass judgment on Iran. His last report concludes that although the IAEA "has not seen any diversion of nuclear material to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, the IAEA is not at this point in time in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran". So, as with Iraq, there is no "smoking gun", but there are many suspicions and a distinct lack of co-operation. Moscow and Beijing grudgingly agree that Iran poses a threat, but, as with Iraq, disagree over imposing sanctions, let alone military action. The good news is that this time around President Jacques Chirac of France is on America's side, and Washington is more sensitive to the need to build up international "consensus".

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, told Congress that "we may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran". Drawing inspiration from the Cold War, America is putting in place a strategy to undermine the Iranian regime from within, not least by pumping money into radio and television broadcasts aimed at Iran - particularly young Iranians deemed to be hostile to the regime and friendly to the West. Even the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, once the most prominent advocate of "engagement" with Teheran, now speaks of supporting Iranians' desire for freedom.

The trouble is that there is no guarantee of when this policy will succeed, if ever. And if the regime-change timetable is uncertain, the nuclear clock is ticking.Iran has ended its "freeze" on sensitive technology , and has started "research" to make enriched uranium , and has announced plans to build a "pilot" plant.

So President Bush may soon face some difficult decisions. Turn the other way live with the danger or take the risk starting another war.