Will you take an offer if you knew that by refusing it you would get a better one?
The answer from Tehran is an emphatic no, and concerns the latest “generous package” that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany put together in London last week.
The “package” shaped after days of hard bargaining between the United States and the European Union on one side, and Russia and China on the other, is designed to persuade the Islamic Republic to break the diplomatic logjam over its controversial nuclear ambitions.
Although the contents of the offer have not been made public, the six have made it clear that, to open the gift package, Tehran must first stop its uranium enrichment programme.
However, this is precisely what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ignoring three Security Council resolutions and swallowing the bitter medicine of sanctions, has vowed never to do. Having built his image as a warrior against “bullying powers”, Ahmadinejad knows that backing down now could mean political suicide.
The Khomeinist leader has studied the international calendar of events with care.
He knows that in nine months time the United States will have a new president.
The “mad Bush”, the only US leader to have used American military power in pre-emptive wars will be gone.
Two of Bush’s three likely successors, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have built their campaign on being anti-Bush.
Obama has said he would invite Ahmadinejad for unconditional talks, ignoring UN resolutions that call on Tehran to stop uranium enrichment.
Why should Ahmadinejad offer Bush a major diplomatic victory when the next US president may not even ask for it?
Even if Senator John McCain becomes president, he would need time before he has his team in place and is capable of taking any significant action against the Islamic Republic.
So, why pay now what one may not have to pay tomorrow? Ahmadinejad knows the Persian proverb: “From one pillar to another, there is relief!”
The second date on the calendar concerns Ahmadinejad directly.
Next year, he would have to seek re-election.
And, as things stand, his prospects do not look promising.
The Iranian economy is on a slippery slope with double-digit inflation, soaring unemployment, and deepening structural fissures.
The “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi and the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may well decide to blame it all on Ahmadinejad, and ditch him in favour of another IRGC officer. (The return of a mullah as president seems unlikely, at least for the time being.)
Ahmadinejad’s main hope for winning a second term is to perpetuate the fiction that he is fighting to preserve Iran’s independence against predatory powers bent on dictating to weaker nations.
Unable to offer anything positive, he cannot abandon the only negative card that could help him retain power.
Ahmadinejad also knows that the calendar includes other events over the next year or so, events that could enable him to dodge dramatic decision on the nuclear issue.
Russia too has a new president, with Vladimir Putin becoming prime minister. The new arrangement in Moscow would need time to settle and be tested. The last thing, the Putin-Medvedev tandem would want is a hot crisis over Iran.
Then there is the summer Olympics in Beijing.
That means the Chinese would not want anything to distract attention from their big show, least of all another war in the Middle East which supplies 70 per cent of their oil.
There are other prospects on the calendar, albeit of lesser clarity.
Britain is heading for a general election in 2009, which Labour is likely to lose.
The German coalition is showing fissures that could force a general election next year.
There are, however, two other reasons why Ahmadinejad has no incentive to accept the poisoned gift offered.
The first is that the new “package” is far more generous than anything that his predecessor as president, the mullah Muhammad Khatami, could have imagined.
In 2003, Khatami agreed to suspend Iran’s uranium enrichment programme in exchange for promises of a package of gifts.
He kept his end of the bargain for two years but received nothing.
As soon as Ahmadinejad resumed enrichment, the Six Powers rushed to him with gifts. Each time he hardened his position, he got an even better offer. The lesson is clear: the more you say no, the higher the price of your putative yes!
So, why should Ahmadinejad say yes now when he knows that in a year’s time, hopefully on the eve of his election campaign, he might get an even better offer?
The second reason why Ahmadinejad is almost obliged to dismiss the offer is that the Six Powers are clearly unable to agree on a diagnosis of the problem.
The British wanted the London statement to refer to the Iranian nuclear programme as “a threat”.
The Chinese refused because, they insisted, the dispute with the Islamic Republic was “a technical one.”
In other words while the British, and presumably he Americans, think that Ahmadinejad wants the atomic bomb to do mischief with, the Chinese, and presumably the Russians, see the whole thing as no more worrying than a case of bad plumbing.
It is this last reason that produced the so-called “Iranian nuclear crisis” in the first place, and the same that will prevent its resolution. Ahmadinejad’s best bet is to continue his prevarications, saying yes to separate talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Russia, and no to Six Power “gifts”.
If Iran is no threat to anybody, where is the problem?
Uranium enrichment is perfectly legal, something that the Six Powers, among others, have been doing for decades.
If, on the other hand, Iran is a threat, one should ask why before trying to do anything about it. However, this is precisely the debate that the Six Powers have not succeeded to hold among themselves.