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Having resumed uranium enrichment, has the Islamic Republic crossed the Rubicon? That question is dividing commentators and decision-makers both inside and outside Iran.
Some, like former US vice president Al Gore, believe that Iran is a threat to world peace and must be checked, by force if necessary. Others, like Gore's former boss, ex-president Bill Clinton, are convinced that the best way to deal with Iran is to negotiate. Both, however, may be missing the point.
If military action means a few brief air strikes or missile attacks, it is certain to be counter-productive. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might even welcome such attacks in the hope that they will lift the uncertainty that is damaging the Iranian economy and undermining his authority. And he would not be wrong.
The ineffective missile attacks president Clinton launched against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Saddamites in Iraq in the 1990s strengthened both regimes in two ways. First, the attacks demonstrated that when the American sword of Damocles falls, it does only limited damage. Secondly, they showed that the US did not pursue the broader objective of regime change, the only thing that would have made the Taliban and the Saddamites pay attention.
TODAY WE face a similar situation with the Islamic Republic. As long as no regime change is on the agenda the leadership in Teheran will not be swayed by air raids or missile attacks. Constant saber-rattling by the Iran's genuine or fake adversaries plays into the hands of a new leadership actively seeking a "clash of civilizations," provided its hold on power in Teheran is not threatened. The new Teheran leadership is flattered by the fact that the United States is treating it as an almost-equal adversary rather than a ramshackle Third World regime.
Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, who recently talked to the Iranian leaders, is quoted as saying that in today's world only three countries are genuinely free to act as they please: the United States, China and Iran.
Ahmadinejad agrees, but leaves China out. He believes that the world today faces a choice between an Americanized existence, or diversity under the leadership of the Islamic Republic.If Gore's idea of a muscular answer to the Islamic Republic is out, should we adopt Clinton's scenario for negotiations?
Once again the problem is that any diplomatic process Clinton might imagine would play into the hands of the new leadership in Teheran. Here's why: To persuade Teheran to negotiate, it would be necessary to postpone referring its dossier to the UN Security Council. And that is precisely what Teheran is working hard to achieve.
TEHERAN would like nothing better than a resumption of talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency in exchange for postponing any action by the Security Council. To lubricate things along the way Teheran might even offer to introduce another "temporary suspension" of its uranium enrichment program within a year or two. At the same time the Teheran leadership wants to keep the focus on the nuclear issue.
This could win the regime a measure of popular support inside Iran, where most people do not know what the fuss is about and resent being treated as "less than the Indians" when it comes to having nuclear weapons.
At the same time, exclusive attention on the nuclear issue would push other, potentially more explosive issues - such as violation of human rights, waves of executions, and ethnic unrest in many parts of Iran - out of the limelight.
Manouchehr Mottaki, the new Iranian foreign minister, has used a Persian proverb to explain Teheran's diplomacy: "There is hope from pillar to pillar!"
This means that Islamic diplomacy is geared to achieve two things: first, to prevent the emergence of a consensus among the major powers on regime change in Iran; and second, to keep the major powers engaged in an open-ended talking process. Thus Clinton's analysis would play right into Ahmadinejad's hands.
The Iranian analysis is based on the belief that the current American strategy is the product of "a moment of madness under President George W Bush." Thus it is assumed that Bush has been acting out of character for an American president, and that once he is out of office his successor, whoever it is, will revert to the traditional American policy of "conflict avoidance" and "alliance building" for soft-power action.
ALL THE TALK in Teheran, and by extension in Damascus, where the Islamic Republic has now established itself as principal supporter of the Syrian regime, is about "the three-year endurance course" that consists of what is left of President Bush's second and final term in office. It is on the basis of that analysis that Teheran will not enter any negotiations that would question its right to develop what Ahmadinejad describes as "a full scientific nuclear cycle."
And it is on that basis too that President Bashar al-Assad has decided not only to tell the UN to stuff it, but also to reassert Syria's dominance in Lebanon through a new Shi'ite-Maronite alliance underwritten by Teheran.
THE IRONY in all this is that the Bush administration has played the part assigned to it in the Iranian script. It has thrown in its lot with the advocates of diplomacy and soft power, thus giving Ahmadinejad the assurance that there will be no unilateral American action against the Islamic Republic.
At the same time, Washington is doing enough saber-rattling to give credence to Ahmadinejad's claim that a "clash of civilizations" is under way, with Iran leading one camp and the US another.
In the set speech he delivers during his campaign-like visits to the provinces, Ahmadinejad mocks the major powers for their "obsession with passing resolutions."
"They just don't get it," he told an audience in Bushehr earlier this month. "They think that because they pass a resolution, everyone is obliged to obey it. Our message is simple: Pass resolutions until you are blue in the face! We are guided by what the Hidden Imam tells us, not by what you dictate in your resolutions."
IF THE resolutions of the Security Council are meant to serve as sticks, it is already clear that they do not perform that function as far as the Islamic Republic is concerned. A regime that claims world leadership in a "clash of civilizations" and promises to "save the world from total Americanization" will not be swayed by such classic tactics.
When it comes to dealing with Iran, neither the Gore scenario nor the Clinton alternative are likely to work. The Gore scenario is doomed because even he might not support a full-scale war to change the regime in Teheran. The Clinton scenario would not work because even he would not be prepared to grant what Ahmadinejad demands.
So, what is to be done? Ah, that requires another column, doesn't it?
The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.