By Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Editor
Daily Telegraph, October 6 – For the past two years, the Foreign Office has done its utmost to defend Iran from American accusations that Iranian mullahs were stirring trouble in Iraq.
"On the contrary," British diplomats retorted, "Iran is being very helpful in the political process. It has an interest in stability in Iraq."
Senior British officials daydreamed of effecting a great reconciliation between Teheran and Washington. Suddenly, they have started to sound like the hardest American neo-conservatives.
The change is because British soldiers are being killed by roadside bombs made with a new degree of sophistication, with explosives shaped to maximise the ability to penetrate armour.
Ordnance experts believe these are of the same design as those once used by Hizbollah – Iran’s proxy in Lebanon – to drive out the Israelis.
"One can only speculate about Iran’s motives but I do not think they are all that benign," a senior British official said yesterday.
He detailed how Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the praetorian guard of the Islamic revolution, were helping to arm not only their Shia co-religionists but also the Sunni extremists who are killing ordinary Shias.
In his address to the UN Security Council making the case for war in Iraq, Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state, claimed that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then operating under the name of Ansar al-Islam and based in the wilderness of the Kurdish regions, was an ally of Saddam Hussein.
This theory has been discredited. Now the British official claims that Ansar al-Islam was supported by Iran.
All this may seem illogical, given that the insurgency is aimed at destroying the transitional government dominated by Iran’s political allies. Alternatively, Iran is seeking to maintain links to all factions to play one off against the other and manipulate the level of violence against the coalition – not least as a warning that the West should stop trying to constrain its nuclear programme.
The best guess is that Iran has adopted a "ballots and bullets" policy: helping the insurgency to sap America’s strength while supporting political allies to take power in Baghdad. So far, the policy has been highly successful.
When America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, many speculated that Iran, named as part of the "axis of evil", would be next.
But after two years of the insurgency, the balance of power has tipped. Now it is the coalition that fears Iran, neo-conservatives step back from advocating military action against the regime and Saudi Arabia complains that Iraq is "being handed over to Iran". British forces in southern Iraq are particularly exposed in this vicious game.
In the view of the Foreign Office, Teheran is writing its political messages in the blood of British soldiers.