by Simon Tisdall
Imagine for a moment that you are a senior official in Iran's foreign ministry. It's hot outside on the dusty, congested streets of Tehran. But inside the ministry, despite the air-conditioning, it's getting stickier all the time. You have a big problem, a problem that Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, admits is "huge and serious". The problem is the Bush administration and, specifically, its insistence that Iran is running "an alarming clandestine nuclear weapons programme". You fear that this, coupled with daily US claims that Iran is aiding al-Qaida, is leading in only one direction. US news reports reaching your desk indicate that the Pentagon is now advocating "regime change" in Iran.
Reading dispatches from Geneva, you note that the US abruptly walked out of low-level talks there last week, the only bilateral forum for two countries lacking formal diplomatic relations. You worry that bridge-building by Iran's UN ambassador is getting nowhere. You understand that while Britain and the EU are telling Washington that engagement, not confrontation, is the way forward, the reality, as Iraq showed, is that if George Bush decides to do it his way, there is little the Europeans or indeed Russia can ultimately do to stop him.
What is certain is that at almost all points of the compass, the unmatchable US military machine besieges Iran's borders. The Pentagon is sponsoring the Iraq-based Mojahedin e-Khalq, a group long dedicated to insurrection in the Islamic republic that the state department describes as terrorists. And you are fully aware that Israel is warning Washington that unless something changes soon, Iran may acquire the bomb within two years. As the temperature in the office rises, as flies buzz around the desk like F-16s in a dogfight and as beads of sweat form on furrowed brow, it seems only one conclusion is possible. The question with which you endlessly pestered your foreign missions before and during the invasion of Iraq - "who's next?" - appears now to have but one answer. It's us.
So what would you do?
This imaginary official may be wrong, of course. Without some new terrorist enormity in the US "homeland", surely Bush is not so reckless as to start another all-out war as America's election year approaches? Washington's war of words could amount to nothing more than that. Maybe the US foolishly believes it is somehow helping reformist factions in the Majlis (parliament), the media and student bodies. Maybe destabilisation and intimidation is the name of the game and the al-Qaida claims are a pretext, as in Iraq. Perhaps the US does not itself know what it wants to do; a White House strategy meeting is due today. But who knows? Tehran's dilemma is real: Washington's intentions are dangerously uncertain.