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Of all the pressure points on the international scene in 2010 the Iran problem looks the most dangerous. Iran could come to an explosive boiling point in the coming months, sending shock waves through the global system.

True, there is nothing very new about Iran’s sinister involvement with almost every Middle Eastern issue, and with Central Asian affairs as well. Iranian arms and money continue to feed Hezbollah and threaten Lebanon; they feed Hamas and prolong the Israel-Palestine agony; they promote Shiite violence in Iraq and there are even reports that Iranian military support is going to the Taliban.

But it is Iran’s seemingly unstoppable path toward nuclear weapons, and the rest of the world’s reaction to this prospect, that could overshadow these activities. All the signs are of a steep change in the world mood toward Tehran and the mullahs. So far it has been a pattern of halfhearted sanctions, promoted chiefly by Washington and ignored or actively evaded by many other companies and governments, both in Europe and elsewhere, especially in the energy-related sectors.

But now all that could alter in a far sharper direction, for the following reasons. First, the Obama strategy of diplomacy and engagement, with a hand held out to Iran, has hit a brick wall. With the clear rejection of Western compromise proposals for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor, and with the International Atomic Energy Authority admitting that it can do no more to find common ground, the yearend deadline for a constructive Iranian response has now been reached.

Second, a whole new range of Iranian uranium enrichment facilities has been revealed, together with an advanced and enlarged centrifuge system — all key steps on the route to nuclear weaponry.

Third, Iran has recently tested its Sejjil-2 missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads up to 2,000 km.

Fourth, Russia, having been for a long while laid back about Iran’s nuclear program, and in fact actively assisting it at civil nuclear level, now at last is getting worried at what its near neighbor might do. Even China shows readiness to discuss the Iran issue and might consider reviewing its present sanction- undermining trade with Iran, not least its trade in armaments.

Fifth, with Russia and China, who are the keys, showing a more robust and cooperative attitude, the U.N. Security Council can begin to take a serious interest, and move on from weak and wrist-slapping sanctions to a more coordinated and more targeted squeeze on Iran.

Sixth, without much stronger action the fear is that Israel might well do something desperate and strike at Iran direct. Admittedly there are limits to what Israel can do without active American cooperation, but when a nation feels the threat to its very existence growing by the hour desperate moves can occur.

All this is leading the United States Congress to propose much tougher measures against Iran, extending sanctions further into the finance and energy sectors, and embracing credit guarantee agencies and other vital links in the Iranian economic system.

It is also leading EU governments to tighten up their controls on trade and investment with and in Iran. Pressure can also be expected to mount on countries such as Turkey, India and Malaysia to think again about big oil and gas deals they have been planning with Iran, whose energy resources remain enormous, despite hopeless management and poorly planned development. Japan, too, may need to severe its links more cleanly.

This is a grim and dangerous scene, full of explosive potential. If mishandled it could lead to still more Islamic unity, driven by violence and hatred toward everything Western and still more Middle East instability and chaos.

There is one chink of light, which could now be getting rapidly larger. Within Iran itself the divisions are growing. Police state methods are being extended, opposition leaders being arrested, political assassinations arranged and show trials staged. The mullahs are unhappy with the erratic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the streets are filling increasingly frequently with angry demonstrators — on the latest violent occasion at the funeral of the deeply respected Grand Ayotollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a critic of the regime’s extremism.

Such movements have been crushed in the past, and could be again. But this time the unrest seems to go deeper and extend beyond the major cities. Religious and ethnic movements are clearly coming together against state repression.

The protests are far from being pro-Western. Iranians remain united in their wish for a more balanced world in which their ancient and proud nation regains the full respect and influence they believe merits. But an internal power shift could at least bring clearer thinking in Tehran about Iran’s true long term interests, and about the wisdom of making the whole world its enemies. If so, that would suggest patience on the part of the international community, letting events broadly take their course and possibly using sanctions only in the most surgical way possible to curb Iran’s more outrageous and covert pro-terrorist activities.

In a world growing impatient and frightened of Iranian excesses and belligerence this will require truly heroic degrees of global leadership in all the major capitals and at the United Nations.

Let us pray that in 2010 it is forthcoming.

David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords.

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