The Times: MY ENEMY’S enemy isn’t always my friend. Sometimes he’s just another enemy, as Jack Straw is now painfully discovering. The Times

There is no excuse for clinging to the policy of "constructive engagement"

Michael Gove

MY ENEMY’S enemy isn’t always my friend. Sometimes he’s just another enemy, as Jack Straw is now painfully discovering. In the past three months one of the major planks of British diplomacy has collapsed underneath the Foreign Secretary.

For the past three years Mr Straw has been practising a policy of “constructive engagement” towards Iran. He, and his advisers, believed that the regime in Tehran was uniquely placed to be wooed and won. Sandwiched, as it was, between Taleban Afghanistan and Saddam’s Iraq, and hostile to both, it appeared to be a valuable potential ally in the war against terrorism. As an enemy of two of Britain’s post-9/11 enemies, Iran seemed to be a suitable candidate for the role of New Best Friend. To that end, Mr Straw has visited Tehran five times in the past two years, making it one of his frequent-flyer destinations.

There were those, not least within the Bush Administration, who doubted the wisdom of placing so many eggs in a Persian basket. But the British diplomatic establishment was so convinced of the worth of this charm offensive that it persuaded Tony Blair to use up much of his valuable political capital in America to secure White House acquiescence for Mr Straw’s strategy.

The Americans not only swallowed their doubts about the wisdom of Mr Straw’s plan, they also kept quiet when France and Germany joined in. The EU foreign ministers soon used their policy of “constructive engagement” with Iran as a stick with which to beat the White House. Germany and France celebrated the potential of their subtle diplomatic footwork with Iran, claiming that the Europeans were showing those stoopid white men in the Pentagon how subtlety rather than force was the best way to win friends and influence people in the Middle East.

The Germans, British and French may well have succeeded in influencing Iranian policy by their actions. But it is hard to see how Iran’s actions recently can be considered friendly. Even by French standards.

In the past three months Iran has kidnapped eight British servicemen, compelling Britain to truckle for their release; used its agents to foment insurgency and unrest in Iraq; arranged a summit with Syria to discuss future terrorist co-operation; and started a process designed to secure itself an atomic bomb in defiance of international agreements. The best estimates, from European diplomats, put Iran just one year away from having the raw material for a bomb and three years from deploying a deliverable device.

Even some of those who were once most enthusiastic about the prospect of developing a “constructive” relationship with Iran, such as Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, have been compelled to express their “great concerns” at Iran’s activity. But Herr Fischer, like Mr Straw, still seems incapable of recognising that it has been precisely because of their policy that there is such cause for concern now.

The regime in Tehran has interpreted the EU’s desire to develop a constructive relationship as Western weakness, and America’s acquiescence while she is involved in Iraq as confirmation of that weakness. Like all states that practise violence against their own people and terror against others, Iran construes weakness in other nations as a licence for further repression at home and adventurism abroad.

In the period during which Mr Straw has been visiting Tehran, the Iranian leadership has crushed even the few licensed dissenters it had once allowed a modicum of freedom and also violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations. It is not only within its own borders that Iran has been working to subvert democracy. At the time of the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, the Iranian leadership met President Assad of Syria to review how they might further destabilise Iraqi progress towards representative government. Iranian support for Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr’s insurgency has been just one of Tehran’s tactics. It is particularly ironic that Britain’s “constructive” approach to Tehran has thus allowed Iranian-backed fighters to put British soldiers in their sights.

Having argued in this space that constructive engagement with Iran was an error, since the policy began, it seems to me inexplicable that more voices have not been raised to oppose Mr Straw’s appeasement. The regime in Tehran has never been a plausible potential ally in the War on Terror for the simple reason that it has been one of the main sponsors of terrorism across the world since its inception.

And it has shown no signs of wishing to desist from practising terror at any point in the past 25 years. The Islamic republic, from the moment it announced its arrival on the world stage by taking the residents of Tehran’s American Embassy hostage, has always signalled its contempt for the conventions of Western diplomacy and its faith in terrorism as a tool of political advance. The latest evidence of Iran’s implacable attachment to terror comes in the findings of the congressional investigation into 9/11, which demonstrates complicity between Iran and al-Qaeda.

There is no longer any excuse for Mr Straw to cling to the corpse of a failed policy, nor for others to acquiesce silently in his folly. We need to work now to support the appetite for democracy among the Iranian people just as we gave hope to Soviet dissidents and Polish trade unionists in the 1980s — by backing those who broadcast the truth to the oppressed, funding those who will organise for change and showing those who are really the West’s friends that we know a shared enemy when we see one.