Monday February 5, 2007
The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photograph: AP.
As the prime minister dropped a broad hint that he would work on the Middle East peace process after retiring this year, a report warned that an attack on Iran would expose British troops to attack, civilians to terrorism and release radiation in Iran.
The previous foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has said that military action against Iran would be "inconceivable". Margaret Beckett, his successor, has also insisted that no one is planning action against Tehran.
Today's report, entitled "Time to Talk: The Case for Diplomatic Solutions on Iran", comes from the Foreign Policy Centre, backed by trade unions, Muslim and Christian groups and Oxfam.
It says that the UK could prove the vital catalyst between the EU and US on reopening talks with Iran.
Launching the document, Sir Richard Dalton, the British ambassador to Iran until last year, said that a pre-emptive strike on Iran would be "a disaster for Iran, the region and quite possibly the world".
He said that patience and diplomacy were key to securing a successful outcome.
"But both sides should work for a resumption. It is vital that the US becomes fully involved in creative diplomacy," he told the BBC.
The former Labour minister Stephen Twigg, director of the Foreign Policy Centre, said: "The consequences of military action against Iran are not only unpalatable, they are unthinkable.
"Even according to the worst estimates, Iran is still years away from having a nuclear weapon."
Last May the Iranian president wrote an open letter to US president, George Bush, offering talks, but this was rejected.
In recent weeks Mr Bush has accused Iran, in addition to its nuclear ambitions, of supporting the insurgency in neighbouring Iraq.
But another former Labour MP, who is now chief executive of the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre, warned that time was running out to stop Iran become a nuclear power.
Lorna Fitzsimons told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "What we are talking about here is Iran reaching the ability on an industrial scale to manufacture highly-enriched uranium.
"IISS [International Institute for Strategic Studies] and many others prophesise that that is going to happen between nine to 11 months from today.
"That is the watershed. There is no return from that point. You can't get the genie back in the bottle technologically once they have sorted out the problem they currently have with their centrifuges."
The Tories urged keeping all options "on the table", while the Liberal Democrats welcomed the report's call for new talks with Tehran.
The FPC report warns that military action could further destabilise the region and provoke retaliatory attacks against British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It could also undermine the war on terror by fuelling anti-western sentiments, while strikes against nuclear facilities risk unleashing radioactive contamination.
"Military action is not likely to be a short, sharp engagement but could have a profound effect on the region, with shock waves felt far beyond," the report says.
"The UK government is well positioned to articulate objections to military action. Military action against Iran would work against the interests of the UK."
The report says that Mr Blair is among several world leaders who are keeping military force on the table.
"Opposition to military action is currently widespread, though key leaders (notably Tony Blair and Angela Merkel [the German chancellor]) have refused to rule it out, believing the threat to be an important negotiating tool," it says.
Separately, in an interview broadcast today with BBC Radio 1, Mr Blair promised to retain an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "in the years to come".
The prime minister has already pledged, in his conference speech last year, to devote much of his remaining time in office to the problem, but today appeared to go further, suggesting that he would work on the issue after leaving No 10.
In the pre-recorded interview, Mr Blair said that world leaders were agreed that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the single most important issue for world peace.
He added: "Our obligation is to put forward a peace process that can work and try and take that forward.
"And over the next few weeks I think there will be some real movement there."
Asked whether he will continue to work in the Middle East post-Downing Street, Mr Blair said: "I will retain a huge interest in the peace process in Israel and Palestine in the years to come of course because it's so important.
"That's the reason why I've spent so long in my time in office [concentrating on the Middle East] and, incidentally, I am in the end optimistic that this thing can be done.
"But it requires a lot of hard work, a lot of commitment and it requires the international community as a whole to recognise that there is no more important issue for us to resolve than Israel-Palestine."
· Read the full report here