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US Faces Coalition of Unwilling on Iran

By Gerard Baker

By the recent ominous standards of Iranian political theatre Mahmoud Ahmadenijad's declaration this week that his country had promoted itself to the nuclear club was at least mildly entertaining.

From the TV pictures, it looked a little like a low-budget version of an Olympic Games opening ceremony. Austere, athletic-looking men in traditional garb pranced to and fro against a backdrop of doves in flight, while orotund pleas for peaceful cooperation fell earnestly from the mouths of political leaders.

Sadly, like the Olympics it was all a magnificently empty charade. In the nuclear weapons field, Iran is the diplomatic equivalent of one of those Eastern European shot-putters, urgently protesting its innocence while frantically pumping itself full of opposition-crushing chemicals in the locker room. Teheran should have failed its steroid test a long time ago and yet it's still in the international game.

It is to be hoped not many people were taken in by the show this week. The Iranian president's protestations that he would never, never seek to turn the nation's civilian nuclear programme to its military and political advantage (they're going to wipe Israel off the map with bayonets, then, are they?) drew loud guffaws from around the world.

And yet even as universal condemnation rained in on Teheran it was hard to avoid wondering how far the world is really prepared to go to make good on its near unanimous determination that Iran must not be allowed to get the bomb.

The US has invested vast amounts of its national security capital and credibility in the instrument of international solidarity as the means to get Iran to step back from the nuclear brink. Apparently chastened by the experience of Iraq, and Seymour Hersh's breathless, unattributable reporting notwithstanding, the Bush team is acting as though it really thinks a global united front will force the mullahs to back down.

How likely is it that the world will stand firm?

You can forget China and Russia, obviously, those two giants of global stability that foreign policy realists would have us embrace. When Hu Jintao visits Washington next week there's no reason to think he will budge from Beijing's strategic opposition to a get-tough approach with Teheran. And in what must continue to be one of the great gravity-defying diplomatic acts of all time, Vladimir Putin in Moscow will continue to do everything he can to obstruct US objectives, while remaining firmly in the good graces of the White House and the State Department.

That will leave Europe. - or the non-Russian part of it.

Thus far, it is true, the European Union has sounded admirably tough as Iran has breezily blown through each of the diplomatic roadblocks the British, French and Germans have thrown up in its way on the road to nuclear-armed status. Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel invokes the Nazi analogy to insist her government will stop Iran from threatening the world; Jacques Chirac even warns that France might use its own nuclear capabilities if Iran uses terrorism to further its ambitions.

The rhetoric is encouraging, but consider the actual state of Europe this week and ask yourself: is this a continent that is demonstrating political will?

The French government couldn't muster the political strength to face down a terrifying army of bourgeois students fighting to retain the right to smoke Gauloises and drink house claret on their future employers' time. It has once again put the nation's delayed entry into the global economy on hold. In Germany, Mrs Merkel and her Christian Democrat colleagues make all the right strategic noises but are still dependent on the professional hand-wringers of the Social Democratic Party not only for parliamentary survival but for crucial daily decision-making in the field of foreign affairs. Italy has once again demonstrated its unique capacity to do a reverse Creation and conjure chaos from Order at the drop of a ballot box.

And even Britain, plucky, reliable Britain, is in a state of creeping political insolvency, with Tony Blair living on time borrowed from his restive successor Gordon Brown at increasingly usurious interest rates.

How plausible is it that this depleted and demoralized army of European governments is going to spring into battle - metaphorically or literally, with tough economic sanctions or tougher military action - to divert the Iranians from the doomsday path.

The Bush administration was excoriated at home and abroad for its unilateralism in confronting Iraq. But does anybody really think, when the hard decisions have to be made to face down the next threat, that anyone other than the US will be in the coalition?

Gerard Baker is US Editor and Assistant Editor of The Times of London. Email: gerard.baker@thetimes.co.uk

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