France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, probably deserves the credit for the first serious setback to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Hashemi Rafsanjani, Adhmadinejad’s opponent in the 2006 presidential elections, was chosen last Tuesday to head the country’s Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that supervises Iran’s “supreme leader,” currently Ayatollah Ali Khameini.

This event does not interrupt Tehran’s supposed efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, but it places a more accommodative figure at the center of Iranian politics. European foreign ministries believe that Rafsanjani offers the last hope to avoid the use of force to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

Only a week earlier, Sarkozy brought French policy into alignment with the United States, warning, “Iran with a nuclear weapon is not acceptable to me. I want to underline France’s total determination on the current plan linked to increasing sanctions, but also being open to talks if Iran chooses to respect its obligations. This initiative is the only one that can allow us to escape an alternative that I can only call catastrophic: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.”

America’s miserable performance in Iraq should not obscure the success of Washington’s efforts to align the West against Tehran. Sarkozy has shifted French policy in a way that leaves Iran no wiggle room. Although Berlin has been very quiet in recent months, Rafsanjani’s main ties to the West run through Germany, and it can be assumed that US President George W. Bush is working closely with Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as with Sarkozy.

It seems quite probable that the prospect of a West united in its resolve to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and resigned to enforcing this by military means, shifted the balance within Iran’s clerical assembly to the former president. To be sure, Rafsanjani’s return to a position of influence, if not yet power, embarrasses Ahmadinejad but does not yet restrain him.

On the contrary, the volatile Iranian leader warned on Saturday that countries that oppose his nuclear program are “racing to hell.” But the possibility of a negotiated solution cannot be excluded. Even messianic megalomaniacs take notice when they run head-first into a brick wall. Historians believe that the German General Staff would have removed Adolf Hitler from power in 1938 had Britain and France refused to give him the Sudetenland.

I have long predicted that nothing short of violence would dissuade Iran from obtaining a nuclear arsenal, and that the West eventually will use force. This remains the most likely outcome. Apart from Sarkozy’s shift toward the US stance, several events during the past week suggest that matters are coming to a head.

1. Israeli warplanes appear to have tested Syrian air defenses in a brief incursion into Syrian airspace last week. The Turkish press has published photos of fuel tanks supposedly jettisoned by Israeli planes, and asked Jerusalem for an explanation. News accounts suggest that the incursion might have involved a dry run for an overflight of Syria en route to Iran.

2. Russian air-defense technology employed by Syria failed to stop the Israeli intruders, according to the Israeli-intelligence-linked site, indicating the vulnerability of Syria and Iran to an Israeli air attack. The Russians have sold sophisticated systems to Tehran, to be sure, but the Iranians are in no position to verify independently their functionality.

3. Israeli leaders are warning of a military strike against Iran, eg, former Mossad head Shabtai Shavit, who warned on Thursday that nothing but military force would stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

4. Washington has withdrawn its confidence from Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, after ElBaradei said it was too late to ask Iran to stop uranium enrichment (which is precisely what the US demands that it do).

Iran is dying a slow demographic death, I have shown in earlier essays, and the rapid exhaustion of its oil-exporting capacity threatens to plunge the country into profound crisis during the next five years. That is why I believe that Iran will roll the dice on nuclear-arms acquisition, choosing flight forward rather than surrender to Western demands. If a united West (with at least the tacit support of Russia) puts a knife to Tehran’s throat, however, it is still possible that someone like Rafsanjani might emerge as Iran’s Mikhail Gorbachev, and give up the country’s nuclear ambitions.

As I wrote on May 30:

Broadly speaking, the choices are two. In the most benign scenario, Iran’s clerical establishment will emulate the Soviet Union of 1987, when then-prime minister Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that communism had led Russia to the brink of ruin in the face of vibrant economic growth among the United States and its allies. Russia no longer had the resources to sustain an arms race with the US, and broke down under the pressure of America’s military buildup. The second choice is an imperial adventure. In fact, Iran is engaged in such an adventure, funding and arming Shi’ite allies from Basra to Beirut, and creating clients selectively among such Sunnis as Hamas in Palestine. [1]

Very few analysts predict war because they like the idea of war (the prophet Jonah, who was sent to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh, was one of the exceptions). The chances of avoiding war with Iran are slim. It is evident from the past week’s developments, though, that a West united around US leadership has a far greater chance of enforcing a peaceful solution than a gang of European spoilers. Working in close cooperation with China, the Bush administration has defused the North Korean nuclear problem; a similar success in Iran might be unlikely, but cannot be excluded.
1. Why Iran will fight, not compromise, Asia Times Online.