Time is up for the West on Iran...
Stop playing nice....
The best that can be said about Iran's announcement that it intends to build a further 10 uranium enrichment facilities is that at least we are now clear about its intentions.
For much of the past year, the West has been labouring under the illusion that Iran might somehow be coaxed into negotiating a resolution to the international crisis over its nuclear programme. Barack Obama, in particular, has gone out of his way since taking office last January to try to persuade Tehran to end the decades of anti-American hostility that have defined Iran's approach to Washington since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Shortly after his inaugural address, Mr Obama offered to negotiate directly with Tehran, without preconditions, if the regime would agree to "unclench its fist" and demonstrate its willingness to resolve the nuclear crisis by peaceful means. But all the President has got in return is a hardening of Tehran's position, resulting in an announcement that, even by Iranian standards, represents a dramatic escalation in the country's nuclear ambitions. Iran's fist, it seems, remains as tightly clenched as at any time during the past 30 years.
And Iran is never averse to using intimidation to silence its critics – the detention of five British sailors, announced by the Foreign Office last night, is a tried and trusted tactic that we have seen used several times in the past.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, said that a cabinet meeting at the weekend had agreed that the new facilities were required to help Iran produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear-generated electricity by 2020.
Precisely why the world's fourth largest oil producer is so obsessed with developing nuclear power has never been adequately explained by the government. All Mr Ahmadinejad and other senior members of the regime ever say when pressed is that Iran has an inalienable right to develop nuclear power if it chooses, and that is how it intends to meet its future energy needs.
The problem is that many of the facilities the Iranians have built so far, such as the massive underground enrichment facility at Natanz, are not suitable for the nuclear power plant that is currently being built by Russian technicians at Bushehr, in the Gulf. If the enriched uranium being produced at Natanz is unsuitable for the country's domestic nuclear programme, what else might it be used for?
It is this and other glaring discrepancies in Iran's public declarations about its nuclear programme that have led the West to conclude that Iran's nuclear intentions are far from peaceful, and that the regime is secretly working to construct an atom bomb.
These suspicions deepened further after Mr Obama revealed the existence of a hitherto undeclared enrichment plant during September's G20 summit at Pittsburgh. Flanked by Gordon Brown and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Obama revealed that Iran had built a second uranium enrichment facility in a mountain range close to the holy city of Qom.
Iran was deeply embarrassed by this diplomatic démarche, and agreed to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, the UN body responsible for nuclear monitoring, to visit the site. At the same time, Mr Obama and other world leaders hoped that the revelation would finally persuade Tehran to take a positive approach to negotiations to end the crisis. To start with, the omens looked good. At a summit in Geneva in early October, Tehran indicated it was willing to accept a deal put together by six world powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the US – to ship 75 per cent of its enriched uranium stocks to be processed in Russia, in return for UN sanctions being frozen.
Removal of the stockpiles of enriched uranium, which have been created in defiance of the UN, was seen as an important confidence-building measure, as it would eliminate suspicions that Iran might use the material to construct a nuclear weapon (Iran is currently believed to have sufficient fissile material to build one nuclear warhead).
But, as has so often been the case in the drawn-out negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme, the Iranians have gradually backed away from the Geneva commitment, to the extent that they have now ruled out exporting any of their stockpiles of enriched uranium.
At the same time, the team of IAEA inspectors that was allowed to visit the Qom facility had reached some disturbing conclusions about the site's proposed use. Its emphatic conclusion was that the facility, which is still several months away from completion, has no obvious civilian or commercial use, prompting the suspicion that it has been built as part of a clandestine military programme.
This conclusion would certainly fit in with the assessment made in a secret report drawn up by the IAEA earlier this year, details of which were leaked last month, which found that Iran now had "sufficient information" to make a nuclear bomb, and had probably carried out tests on key components.
A combination of the Qom discovery and Iran's refusal to comply with the agreement to export its stockpiles of enriched uranium has now led to a complete breakdown of the negotiating process.
Even Mohammed ElBaradei, the IAEA director-general, concedes that his inspectors have reached a "dead end" in their attempts to unravel Iran's true nuclear intentions. During his 12-year tenure as head of the IAEA, Mr ElBaradei has bent over backwards to accommodate Tehran, often blocking publication of sensitive material that might embarrass the Iranians in the hope that he could persuade them to make a full disclosure of their programme.
But before retiring at the end of last week, Mr ElBaradei effectively admitted that his diplomatic overture had failed, and accused Iran of lacking credibility over its handling of the nuclear negotiations. Mr ElBaradei's gloomy assessment has now resulted in the IAEA's 35-member board taking the exceptional measure of censuring Iran for building the Qom facility, and demanding that it freeze all work on its uranium enrichment programme. Perhaps the biggest surprise to emerge from the vote last Friday was that, for the first time, both China and Russia supported the resolution. Previously, Moscow and Beijing have resisted the West's attempts to pressure Iran, arguing that the threat posed by Tehran's nuclear programme has been exaggerated.