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Having failed to stop war in Iraq, French President Jacques Chirac is determined to prevent a similar fate befalling Iran.
"There will be no war against Iran," Chirac is reported to have told a special emissary of the Islamic Republic who visited him in Paris last week. "Anything other than negotiations would be resolutely opposed by France." History may not be repeating itself, but it is hard not to remember similar pledges Chirac gave to Saddam Hussein up to March 2003, just weeks before the US-led coalition invaded Iraq.
It is now clear that Chirac's assurances played a crucial role in persuading Saddam Hussein not to offer the concessions that might have prevented war and regime change.
According to former Iraqi vice president Tareq Aziz, speaking to American and Iraqi interrogators from his prison cell, Saddam was convinced that the French and, to a lesser extent, the Russians would save his regime at the last minute.
Just hours before he flew to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Chirac dropped the only condition that the 5+1 group - the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany - had demanded of Teheran as a prelude to negotiations.
"Iran should not be asked to stop uranium enrichment as a precondition," Chirac said. "And there is no sense to refer the Islamic Republic back to the Security Council."
THIS MEANS that the Bush administration loses the only concession it received from its European allies as an inducement to join talks with Iran. Thanks to Chirac, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to have scored a major diplomatic victory over President George W. Bush.
Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic continues to implement a strategy designed to counter any sanctions that might eventually be imposed. Two facets of this strategy:
relocating Iranian assets in places where they cannot be seized or frozen. Over the past few months billions of dollars in Iranian assets have been transferred from Western banks to financial institutions less likely to heed any advice from Washington, especially in the Persian Gulf.
stockpiling dual-use products likely to be denied to Iranian importers when, and if, sanctions are imposed. Over the past few months Teheran has contacted scores of Iranian businessmen in Europe and the US to give a helping hand, and make a quick buck, in speeding up the flow of sanction-busting goods.
The massive increase in imports has led to a doubling of waiting time for ships to unload at Iran's principal ports, including Bandar Abbas, while a stream of trucks continues non-stop from Turkey. In most cases, the imports operation is handled by the commercial wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in the manner of a military operation.
Finally, Iran's sanctions-busting plan includes a strong diplomatic element.
THE ISLAMIC Republic has already won the express support of no fewer than 116 of the 192 members of the UN for its position regarding the nuclear issue. Although the Security Council may end up imposing some sanctions on Teheran, it is not at all certain that its decisions would be respected by a majority of the UN members.
The idea of freezing the personal assets of leading Iranian officials is also a non-starter, as most of them have had ample time to take precautionary measures.
Paradoxically, however, Teheran's success in countering sanctions in advance may hasten their imposition by the Security Council. The reason is that Iran's friends on the council, especially Russia and China, might decide that it is not worthwhile to pick up a quarrel with Washington to stop sanctions that would not hurt the Islamic Republic in any case.
The law of unintended consequences may operate in yet another way: if sanctions prove useless from the start, the US and its closest allies might decide that the only effective move against the Iran is military action. In other words, Teheran's success in countering possible sanctions may render a military clash inevitable.
According to Teheran sources, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has "factored in" such a possibility.
"A limited military clash would suit Ahmadinejad fine," says a former cabinet minister. "The Americans would appear, fire a few missiles, bomb a few sites and go away. Ahmadinejad would show on TV some old ladies and babies killed by the Americans, declare victory and pursue his grand plans with renewed vigor."
The self-confident mood advertised by Ahmadinejad in his star appearance at the non-aligned summit in Havana, Cuba, and the fiery speech delivered at the UN General Assembly in New York indicate a firm belief that he has won his first battle against the American "Great Satan."
Portraying his predecessors as weak men who gave in to American pressure, Ahmadinejad is counting on his macho image to help his faction win the crucial elections for local government councils and the Assembly of Experts that choose the "Supreme Guide" in the autumn.
FRANCE'S SUDDEN change of position, though expected, has left the so-called alliance that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice boasted about in tatters.
Having failed to develop an Iran policy for almost five years, the Bush administration was glad to hide that lacuna by talking up the European option. Chirac's decision to remove that fig leaf is bound to renew the debate in Washington about what to do with a messianic regime determined to reshape the Middle East after its own fashion and in defiance of the Bush Doctrine.
Ahmadinejad's success in warding off external pressures and projecting an image of invincibility abroad would enhance his position at home. And there, we may see yet another illustration of how the law of unintended consequences works: The US sets out to cut Ahmadinejad down to size by focusing on the nuclear issue and ends up helping the ultra-radical president strengthen his position at home.
And, that, in turn, would make it harder for him or any other Iranian leader to accept the compromises needed to avoid a collision course.
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