The stakes are getting worryingly high over Iran. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu appears ever more likely to launch a military strike and US President Barack Obama is under pressure to do something. Speaking on 14 March he warned “the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking”.

In the meantime, Iran continues to offer contradictory signals. Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei has said nuclear weapons are “un-Islamic” and Iran has agreed to new talks. But it has also refused to give UN inspectors access to a suspect military complex at Parchin.

While there has been no definitive evidence that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, Tehran appears content to let ambiguity prevail. It is all very reminiscent of the circumstances that led to the US invading Iraq in 2003.

If military action is decided on, it is unlikely to prove effective. At best, any targeted strikes by Israel or the US might delay Iran’s nuclear programme, but they will not stop it. At worst, it could set off a wider conflict, with unpredictable consequences.

Sanctions, meanwhile, are only partially effective. Although they make life difficult, there is a limit to how much further sanctions can go. The parliamentary elections held in Iran in early March reaffirm what has been going on in domestic Iranian politics for some time. The hardliners are now firmly in control and the country is becoming a straightforward dictatorship, where democratic structures act as mere window dressing to make the regime seem respectable.

Perhaps the only silver lining is that President Ahmadinejad has effectively been sidelined. With a hostile parliament lined up against him, he will be increasingly ineffective between now and when his term ends next year. Removing one firebrand from the scene can only help.

It is hardly the best circumstances in which to seek a diplomatic breakthrough, but all the other options are far worse.