By Con Coughlin in Washington
The Sunday Telegraph – When it comes to dealing with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme, the Bush administration is prepared to take a far more measured – some would say mature – approach to coalition-building than was obvious during the build-up to the Iraq war.
Although some members of the first Bush administration appeared to delight in the deep fissures that appeared in the Western alliance over Iraq, the President himself was dismayed at the steady erosion of support, which, by the time hostilities commenced, left Britain to provide the only other significant military force to participate in the American-led coalition.
With Iran fast emerging as the biggest security threat of Mr Bush’s second term, the White House is determined to work with, rather than against, its allies. So far as Mr Bush is concerned, Iran is not just America’s problem; it is everyone’s problem.
In seeking to achieve a united international front, the President is benefiting from the departure of many of the more ideologically committed neoconservative hawks who served in his first administration, such as Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defence secretary.
The new, more accommodating approach is epitomised by Condoleezza Rice, America’s cultured and dignified Secretary of State, who is more inclined to listen to opposition voices than to adopt the confrontational posture of many leading figures in "Bush One".
This explains why the White House was so patient with the EU3 – Britain, Germany and France – as it pursued its ultimately fruitless attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, even though no one in Washington believed the initiative stood much chance of success.
That patience, however, paid off last week when all the leading world powers agreed to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council for its repeated failure to comply with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.
And having achieved an early degree of consensus, the White House is determined to maintain a united international response in the hope that it might ultimately persuade the hard-line Iranian regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come to its senses.
The underlying reasons for this more pragmatic approach are twofold. First, at this stage in the American electoral cycle the priority for Mr Bush’s aides is more focused on this November’s mid-term congressional elections than the mullahs’ desire for nuclear weapons.
The other factor weighing on the White House’s considerations is that the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the military capability of the world’s only superpower to the limit.
But that is not to say the President and his aides are likely to underestimate the danger Iran poses. This is a regime, after all, that has caused successive American administrations arguably more grief than Saddam Hussein ever did, starting with the 1979 American embassy siege in Teheran.
And since Mr Ahmadinejad’s surprise election victory last summer, the rhetoric emanating from Teheran has left no one in any doubt as to Iran’s ultimate objective – to build a nuclear bomb capable of wiping Israel off the face of the earth.
Most intelligence estimates agree that Iran is already half way to achieving that goal – the advanced Shahab 3 ballistic missile system has a range capable of hitting Israel and targets in southern Europe. All it needs is a warhead and, given the Iranians’ current rate of progress, that may well be available by the end of the decade.
Time, therefore, is not on the Bush administration’s side. For the moment the President is prepared to indulge in "jaw, jaw", in the knowledge that unless there is a radical change of heart in Teheran in the next few months, he will have no alternative other than to resort to military action.
– Con Coughlin is The Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Security Editor