Oblivious that it is curtain time for him at the Elysee Palace, France's President Jacques Chirac is trying what could be his last throw of the diplomatic dice.
Chirac wants to try his luck with the Khomeinist regime in Tehran in the hope of persuading it to reduce its nuclear ambitions, abandon Hezballah, and join France in creating a new "axis of independence". That is to say an anti-American bloc, in the Middle East.
Chirac's hopes to achieve "something dramatic" before next month, when he is to host an international conference on Lebanon in Paris.
Still harbour illusions about securing a third term as president, Chirac may be banking on a sensational diplomatic coup to help launch his bid in the teeth of opposition from his own neo-Gaullist party. His last few remaining friends are already trying to portray him as "the wise old man" of international politics, one who opposed "George W Bush's folly" of invading Iraq.
As Chirac sees things, over the next few weeks his diplomatic coup may achieve several objectives before the end of March when he has promised to tell everyone whether he wishes to seek re-election.
Here is how things are supposed to work out, according to Chirac's imagination: a senior French emissary, a former head of the country's secret services, goes to Tehran and obtains a one-on-one-with the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi. The emissary, Jean-Calude Cousseran, tells the top mullah that the "Anglo-Saxons", that is to say the US and Britain, are preparing to take military action against the Islamic Republic. He will intimate some supposedly secret information on the subject, and will point to the US naval build up in the region as a sure sign that something is afoot.
Next, the French spook will ask Khamenehi to nominate a senior person, preferably former President Hashemi Rafsanjani who has always been a favorite of Chirac, to handle the nuclear issue on behalf of the Islamic Republic. This would marginalize the "loudmouth" President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has bet his career, may be even his life, on taking on the Americans and defeating them on the battlefield.
Once the Khomeinists have offered encouraging gestures, Chirac would send his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the last of the Mohicans in the Chiraquian camp, to Tehran to clinch the deal. This would consist of an announcement by Tehran that it has agreed to suspend uranium enrichment until next September, the earliest date at which Iran's only nuclear power plant, at Hellieh, is supposed to become partially operational.
Chirac would then call for a postponement of the United Nations Security Council meeting, due in March, and call on the US and the UK to withdraw their naval forces from waterways close to Iran.
Chirac, the " grand old man of international politics" and the" champion of peace", would then announce his candidacy for the presidency and call on " French women and Frenchmen" to elect him so that he could save the world from another Bushian folly.
His few remaining friends already attack Nicholas Sarkzoy, the official candidate of the Gaullist family, as "Bush's poodle" and "a freemarketeer", a term that send shivers down many French spines. As the anti-Bush and anti-free market candidate, Chirac would then hope to capitalize on traditional French anti-American and anti-capitalist sentiments.
What chance does Chirac have of seeing his fantasy come true? The answer is none.
For more than two years poll after poll has shown that the French are simply fed up with Chirac and long to see him vanish as fast possible. In one recent poll only 17 per cent said he should be allowed to run for president again, if he so wishes.
Worse still, most of Chirac's oldest associates have abandoned him. Some, like former Premier Alain Juppe, would not even touch him with a barge pole. Others, like former Labor Minister Francois Fillon, find Chirac's idea of trying to get elected with the help of Tehran's mullahs simply obnoxious.
The problem with Chirac is that, despite his long political career, he has learned little from experience. Chirac was a Cabinet minister when Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States. Since then he has twice served as prime minister and won the presidency for two successive terms. In between, he served as Mayor of Paris for almost 20 years, a position he used as a platform for meddling in international affairs.
Chirac has fallen victim of his illusions on several occasions.
In 1981, he kicked a fuss about the destruction of Osirak, Saddam Hussein's nuclear program that the French had built under a contract signed by Chirac during his first tenure as prime minister in 1976. The gesture secured years of financial support by Saddam for the neo-Gaullist party but made moderate Arabs suspicious of Chirac.
In 1986, as prime minister, Chirac opposed the American bombing raid on Tripoli that ended Libyan support for international terror. Having denied American planes the use of French air space, Chirac had hoped to make Colonel Muammar Kaddhafi a life-long friend. In 2002, however, when Kaddhafi decided to switch sides he chose the British and the Americans, not the French under Chirac.
In 1986, Chirac allowed Wahid Gordji, then identified by French services as the coordinator of Tehran's terror networks in Europe, to avoid a police arrest warrant and fly out of Paris, where he had the cover of an attaché, back to Iran. In exchange, the mullahs promised not to order violent operations on French soil. That promise was soon broken. Paris experienced the worst terrorist campaign in its recent history, and Tehran's agents continued the "targeted killing" of dissidents on French soil.
Worse still, from Chirac's point of view, the mullahs did not invite the French companies at the high table of Iranian business. All the major oil contracts that the mullahs offered for the first time since seizing power in 1979 went to American companies. (When US companies refused, or were forced by Washington to withdraw, a few crumbs were thrown at the French.)
In 1991, Chirac opposed the forcible expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Iraq in the hope that the Baathist tide of "secularism and nationalism" would sweep away the pro-American "reactionary regimes" and cast France in the role of the principal Western ally of the Arabs. Once again, Chirac simply jumped on the wrong bus and ended up in an impasse.
Chirac's diplomacy never produced anything positive for France or for anyone else for that matter. However, it did encourage the worst tendencies of radical adventurers such as Saddam, Kaddhafi and Khomeini. Today, he is playing his old game of selling the illusion that the mullahs can hoodwink the rest of the world with help from Paris and thumb their nose at the Security Council. The mullahs would be mad to fall for Chirac's last, and pitiful, bamboozle. What Chirac is offering can only hasten another war in the Middle East.