The Sunday Times: When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations for the first time last September, he had a mystical, out of body experience. On his return to Iran he said: One of our group told me that when I started to say, In the name of the God, the almighty and merciful, he saw a light around me and I was placed inside this aura. The Sunday Times
Sarah Baxter, Washington and Uzi Mahnaimi, Tel Aviv
WHEN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations for the first time last September, he had a mystical, out of body experience. On his return to Iran he said: One of our group told me that when I started to say, In the name of the God, the almighty and merciful, he saw a light around me and I was placed inside this aura.
Sheer flattery? Not according to the Iranian president. I felt it myself, he continued.
I felt the atmosphere suddenly change and for those 27 or 28 minutes the leaders of the world did not blink . . . They were rapt. It seemed as if a hand was holding them there and had opened their eyes to receive the message from the Islamic republic.
Ahmadinejad is said to believe in the return of the 12th imam, the Mahdi, who will restore peace and justice at the end of the world.
Middle Eastern commentators have noted the delicious irony of having two sparring, devout leaders President George W Bush and Ahmadinejad who believe in the second coming of a messiah on judgment day. But only the Iranian leader has vowed to wipe another nation, Israel, off the map, adding an apocalyptic air of menace to his countrys quest to acquire supposedly peaceful nuclear power.
Irans decision to break the UN seals at its nuclear enrichment plant in Natanz last week has placed the international community in a quandary.
Was it a shrewd piece of Iranian realpolitik designed to win approval at home and to spread fear abroad, or the actions of an Islamic fanatic and avowed Holocaust denier obsessed with destroying the Jewish state? And whatever the Iranian presidents motivation, can he be stopped?
Bush is expected to invite Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister, to Washington next month for talks on Iran. The timing is sensitive. Israel goes to the polls in March and it would be bad form for the White House to give the successor to Ariel Sharon an apparent electoral boost. But the Iranian threat is considered so serious that Bush may not want to wait.
Before the massive stroke that left him in a coma, Sharon had declared: Israel will not accept a nuclear weapon equipped Iran. He had quietly ordered the Israeli Defence Forces to be ready to launch airstrikes against nuclear sites in the Islamic republic if necessary.
The whole issue is now with the Americans, said an Israeli defence source. Once we get the green light, were ready.
For now the light has stalled on amber. Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, chastised Iran last week for its dangerous defiance and warned that the president of the United States never takes any of his options off the table. She added, however, that diplomacy was the best way to solve the crisis: If the international community stays united, it has a chance to work.
The European Union Three (EU3) of Britain, France and Germany spent 2½ years trying to coax Iran into a grand bargain whereby it would be welcomed into the community of nations with trade and technology sweeteners in exchange for suspending its nuclear programme.
That policy lies in ruins after the election of Ahmadinejad in June radically changed the political calculus.
Meeting in Berlin last week it took less than an hour for Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, and his French and German counterparts to agree that talks with Iran had reached a dead end. It was time, they concluded, for the International Atomic Energy Agencys 35-nation board of governors to refer the matter to the UN security council.
That was the easy part, confirmed over tea and biscuits. Whether sanctions will be imposed on Iran remains a matter of intense debate and negotiation. If they are, the Iranians have vowed to raise the stakes further by ending unannounced inspections and other co-operation with the agency.
In Tehran yesterday a defiant Ahmadinejad accused the West of hypocrisy and arrogance. They think they have the power and want to deprive Iran of its rights, he declared. Iran would not compromise one iota but insisted that it was seeking only to develop nuclear energy.
It is a claim greeted with scepticism by western experts who believe that Iran has plentiful supplies of fuel for its nuclear reactor at Bushehr without conducting uranium enrichment, a process that can produce either low-grade reactor fuel or the highly enriched material needed to make a nuclear bomb.
The next round of diplomacy opens tomorrow in London when senior EU3 officials will meet their counterparts from Washington, Moscow and Beijing at the Foreign Office. Top of the agenda will be an attempt to persuade the Russians and the Chinese, who have veto powers at the UN, to agree to a common front against Iran.
We want to reassure them about what we intend to do at the next stage, said a Foreign Office official. But there is no unanimity on the best course of action; nor is it obvious who will emerge the ultimate victor in the showdown between the Iranians and the West.
The EU3s decision to recommend Irans referral to the security council should be a moment of vindication for the Americans, who have sought for years to persuade the Europeans that there is no point in dallying with the Iranians. As long ago as 2001 the neo-conservative hawk Richard Perle, then a senior adviser to the Pentagon, had accused Straw of grovelling to the mullahs.
Perles opinion of British and European negotiating efforts has not improved. Theyll still be talking when the Iranians detonate their first bomb, he said last week. Ahmadinejads rantings are deeply rooted in an apocalyptic concept of the 12th imam which welcomes mass destruction. We may think its crazy, but the question is whether the Iranians are capable of acting on this madness. Id rather not take the risk.
Yet as Perle readily admits, much has changed in America in the past couple of years. The (Bush) administration has become paralysed. Its lost all clear sense of direction with regard to Iran and is all too content not to face difficult decisions, he said.
In other words, as Straw said last week: To quote the White House, Iran is not Iraq.
There was a time when American officials boasted of turning right after we march to Baghdad towards Tehran. The toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was supposed to be a warning to the remaining members of the axis of evil, Iran and North Korea, that nuclear proliferation was a fools game. Instead, Iran has been able to thumb its nose at the West while America struggles to prevent civil war in Iraq.
It is more commonly said in Washington these days that America does not have to worry about Iran because, if push comes to shove, Israel will do the dirty work needed to stop the Iranians from acquiring an Islamic bomb. But will it?
Some Israelis have declared themselves willing to shoulder the burden. We should attack and we are capable of completing the job, said General Uzi Dayan, former head of Israels national security council, last week. Iran is an imminent danger to Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, has backed the destruction of Iranian nuclear facilities, although Olmerts Kadima party looks the more likely election winner.
At the Hatzerim air base on the edge of the Negev desert, the elite 69 strategic F-15 I squadron is ready to attack. Months of preparations have been completed and the young pilots have finished training for the long-haul flights that will be necessary to reach Iran and back without refuelling.
The planes, costing £60m each, are equipped with secret state-of-the-art weaponry and precision bombs that have yet to be tested in battle.
Two submarines capable of launching cruise missiles are on standby: one hidden in the depths of the Persian Gulf, the other stationed in the Israeli port of Haifa. In an attack they will be used to receive high quality signal intelligence.
Israels elite special forces are also prepared for their role flying into Iran by helicopter to sabotage the underground targets that cannot be bombed from the air.
That Israel has a plan of action surprises nobody, but it is a long way from pressing the start key. Its air force successfully bombed Iraqs nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 but, mindful of the lessons of that attack, the mullahs have dispersed their nuclear sites around Iran. There are thought to be at least 40 targets, some buried deep in the ground.
What we now have is a lot of targets, which makes the operation much more difficult, said Zeev Raz, the former pilot who led the attack on Osirak.
It is inconceivable that the Israelis could strike without the support of the Americans. The reality is that it would have to be a sponsored mission because the Israelis would have to fly across Iraqi or Turkish air space, said a senior British defence official.
Then there is the question of retaliation. Iran has got ballistic missiles and some chemical weapons. What would happen if they used them?
A wave of terrorism could be unleashed against Israeli and Jewish targets. On Israels southern border with Lebanon, Irans Hezbollah allies could fire off rockets although, as with Osirak, there would be plenty of Arab nations relieved that Iran had been de-fanged.
The consequences, however, are so unpredictable that Perle believes it would be safer for America to take on the job itself. If the only credible solution to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is an airstrike to destroy their facilities, we are far better able to do it than the Israelis. The worst thing would be to attack and not succeed.
If Olmert comes to Washington next month, Bush is certain to warn him against acting precipitately. Our working assumption is that the Americans will try to pour water on our military plans, said an Israeli defence source.
One of the questions uppermost in the policymakers minds is the state of public opinion in Iran. It is overwhelmingly likely that an attack would inflame people against the American Great Satan and Israel.
Not only would Iranian national pride be wounded; civilian casualties could also provoke fury at a time when pro-western sentiment in Iran had been on the rise.
For Perle, the correct strategy is obvious: hold off military action for now and extend vigorous support to the internal opposition in Iran. As he sees it: Theres nothing being done there. Were giving the mullahs a free ride.
Mounting international pressure on Iran could test the unity of the Islamic regime and the Iranian people. The son of an ironworker, Ahmadinejads humble background and simple lifestyle have won him the respect of many of the poorest Iranians, who still hope he will fulfil election promises to fight unemployment and corruption.
The countrys political elites, although aghast at his gaucheness, mostly support his nuclear policy out of national pride. Ahmadinejad is using the nuclear question to play to the domestic gallery, said a Foreign Office official. He has revived the sentiments of the 1980s. Thats his philosophy.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, has been one of Ahmadinejads most outspoken critics but he has remained silent on the nuclear issue. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran who has the final say on all matters, is said to favour Ahmadinejads uncompromising stance.
Some reformists are concerned by Irans defiance of world opinion. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of Ahmadinejads predecessor as president, believes that the country should not risk international isolation.
Its impossible to put very strict and broad sanctions in place against Iran. The world is not unified and it needs Irans oil, said Khatami. But it is important that Iranians feel they are part of the world and their isolation would have a very heavy effect on them.
How to put pressure on the regime without punishing its citizens is a vexing question for the security council. One idea floated last week was to ban Iran from the World Cup, for which the country has qualified for the first time.
It would give a very clear signal to Iran that the international community will not accept what they are doing, said Michael Ancram, the Conservative MP.
That was not the view from the terraces in Tehran on Friday, where the Iranian team Persepolis was playing Germanys Bayern Munich in front of a home crowd for the first time since 1972. Many fans expressed relief that the German team had ignored the political fallout over the nuclear issue and turned up to play.
In London, Straw soon rejected the idea anyway, saying he was not certain that sports sanctions would help. Sports sanctions hurt the people, not the regime, said a spokesman.
Other suggestions for sanctions include blocking travel visas for the political elite and halting Irans application for membership of the World Trade Organisation.
China Irans top oil importer, with burgeoning energy needs is likely to veto all but the mildest of diplomatic sanctions. It would be a replay of the Iraq debate, said one western diplomat gloomily.
Only last month a high-level Chinese delegation slipped into Tehran for talks on an oil and gas deal worth more than $57 billion. The two nations also have military links stretching back to the Iran-Iraq war.
The Russians are furious that their attempt to play the go- between with Iran and the West has gone nowhere. They had hoped that Ahmadinejad would take up their offer to enrich uranium in Russia for Irans civilian needs. His humiliating lack of interest led to some unusually sharp criticism of the Iranians last week.
Even so, it is highly doubtful that President Vladimir Putin would support stringent sanctions jeopardising Moscows huge economic and strategic interests in the region. Even the French and Germans have warned that economic sanctions are premature.
As a first step, the UN security council president is likely to issue a stern statement condemning Iran, a move likely to be interpreted in Tehran as a sign of western weakness. The pressure will then be increased by degrees but it is a risky gambit that will allow Iran to continue its nuclear work.
The Israelis believe that time is running out. Its nuclear scientists claim that Iran is fast approaching the point of no return when it will have the technical expertise to enrich uranium to bomb-grade purity.
According to a study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran will be three years away from producing a nuclear bomb if it can feed the uranium through 1,000 centrifuges that it hopes to operate at Natanz. A 50,000-centrifuge plant being built nearby could hasten the process considerably.
The 2½ years of talks with the Iranians have already sped by. By the time the talking stops, Iran may have the know-how to build what the rest of the world dreads: an Islamic bomb.
Additional reporting: Michael Sheridan, Bangkok, Mark Franchetti, Moscow, Tom Walker and Flora Bagenal
Where sanctions have succeeded and failed
The easiest sanctions the United Nations security council could impose on Iran would be travel restrictions on members of the Tehran theocracy and a freeze on assets held abroad. But any sanctions affecting trade and investment would probably be vetoed by China and Russia, given their reliance on energy deals with Iran. An oil embargo is extremely unlikely.
If the UN fails to agree on measures, the European Union could impose its own sanctions. These would probably mirror those applied to Zimbabwe and would include a travel ban and an assets freeze, plus a halt to investment and exploration.
Whatever the eventual package, sanctions have an extremely mixed record and have rarely proved effective.
Among cases where sanctions have worked without military force are:
An arms embargo, assets freeze, flight bans and a ban on imports of oil equipment led the Gadaffi regime eventually to hand over the Lockerbie bombing suspects; later it gave up its nuclear research programme.
South Africa 1974-94
Arms embargo and ban on cultural and sporting links helped to end apartheid.
Instances where sanctions largely failed and regimes were overthrown by military intervention include:
Comprehensive sanctions prevented Saddam Hussein developing weapons of mass destruction but caused widespread suffering. Saddam was removed by the US-led invasion in 2003.
Comprehensive sanctions may have increased Slobodan Milosevics popularity at home. Natos bombing in 1999 pressured the Serbian population into pushing him from office.
Despite aviation and financial sanctions, the Taliban regime continued to shelter Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden until US attacks ended its rule.
In Somalia, Liberia, Angola, Sudan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Eritrea and Ethiopia in the 1990s, embargoes proved useless in ending fighting and the black market in small calibre arms.