TONY Blair has told George Bush that Britain cannot offer military support to any strike on Iran, regardless of whether the move wins the backing of the international community, government sources claimed yesterday.
Amid increasing tension over Tehran's attempts to develop a military nuclear capacity, the Prime Minister has laid bare the limits of his support for President Bush, who is believed to be considering an assault on Iran, Foreign Office sources revealed.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is calling on the United Nations to consider new sanctions against Tehran when the Security Council meets next week to discuss the developing crisis. Blair is expected to support the call for a "Chapter 7" resolution, which could effectively isolate Iran from the international community.
But, in the midst of international opposition to a pre-emptive strike on Tehran, and Britain's military commitments around the world, the government maintains it cannot contribute to a military assault. "We will support the diplomatic moves, at best," a Foreign Office source told Scotland on Sunday. "But we cannot commit our own resources to a military strike."
Meanwhile, a new report on the Iran crisis has warned that neo-conservatives in the Bush administration are on "collision course" with Tehran.
The Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), often referred to as Blair's "favourite think-tank", will appeal for a greater effort to find a diplomatic solution in a report to be published later this week. FPC director Stephen Twigg, formerly a Labour minister, explained: "It is essential UK policy on Iran is well informed... We want to engage with the various reformist elements in Iran, both inside and outside the structures of power.
"There is potential for political dialogue, economic ties and cultural contacts to act as catalysts for the strengthening of civil society in Iran."
While the sense of crisis over Iran has been escalated by the fiery rhetoric between Tehran and the West - particularly Washington - many within the British government are now convinced that the impasse can be resolved by repeating the same sort of painstaking diplomatic activity that returned Libya to the international fold.
The approach contrasts sharply with the strategy employed during the run-up to the war in Iraq, when ministers repeatedly issued grim warnings to Saddam Hussein over the consequences of not falling in line with their demands.
"The only long-term solution to Iran's problems is democracy," said Alex Bigham, co-author of the FPC report. "But it cannot be dictated, Iraq-style, or it will backfire. Iran may seem superficially like Iraq but we need to treat Iran more like Libya. Diplomatic engagement must be allowed to run its course. There need to be bigger carrots as well as bigger sticks."
However, the conciliatory language was not reflected in the approach from Washington, where senior figures in the Bush administration remain keen to stress the danger of Tehran's intentions.
In a declaration aimed at America's allies as much as Iran, Rice claimed the Security Council's handling of the Iranian nuclear issue would be a test of the international community's credibility. "If the UN Security Council says: 'You must do these things and we'll assess in 30 days,' and Iran has not only not done those things, but has taken steps that are exactly the opposite of those that are demanded, then the Security Council is going to have to act."
Rice dismissed Iran's declaration that it is only interested in enriching uranium for use in civil nuclear power facilities, saying the international community must remain focused on the potential military applications of this technology.
"The world community does not want them to have that nuclear know-how and that's why nobody wants them to be able to enrich and reprocess on their territory, getting to the place that they can produce what we call a full-scale nuclear plant to be able to do this," she said.
Rice reiterated that President Bush has not taken any option off the table, including a military response, if Iran fails to comply with the demands of the international community.