Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is playing classic bob-and-weave diplomacy as he attempts to avoid or delay UN Security Council action against him.
By first saying that UN weapons inspectors could return with no preconditions, and then rejecting any new UN rules governing the inspectors' work, Mr. Hussein appears to be returning to the old pattern of strategic obfuscation that marked many of his actions both before and after the 1991 Gulf War.
In this instance, he is likely trying to widen existing political splits among the Security Council's big powers. If past actions are any indication, he may retreat and give in only when or if the UN can decide on a united plan of action.
"What he's going to do is what he's always done: push right to the edge," says Frank Anderson, former Near East division chief for the CIA.
On Monday, Iraqi officials met with UN arms experts in Vienna to discuss "practical arrangements" for inspections, according to UN weapons chief Hans Blix.
Visas, landing rights, and office space were on the agenda, as well as inspectors' security.
The meetings took place against a background of continued resistance by France and Russia to US demands that the Security Council pass a new resolution authorizing use of force if Iraq does not give inspectors unfettered access within a few weeks.
"We don't want to give anyone free rein to launch military action," wrote French Foreign Minister Dominque de Villepin in an article in the Paris daily Le Monde.
Given the uncertainty as to what sort of new resolution the Security Council will agree on, if any, Hussein appears to have decided to try to take diplomatic advantage.
Only old agreements with the UN would govern any new inspection regime, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told reporters in Baghdad on Sept. 28. Additional procedures that aim at "harming Iraq will not be permitted," Mr. Ramadan told reporters.
In the past this sort of creative reinterpretation of recent statements has proved of mixed effectiveness for the Iraqi regime.
It did not head off the US-led invasion of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991, for instance. Iraq tried to split the coalition arrayed against it via means such as vague promises of future commercial considerations to Russia and France.
Then Hussein made a pretense of introducing "democratic reforms," as if that would justify a continued hold on Kuwait.
"It was ludicrous. I really don't think he is very good at these things, because he doesn't understand the way the rest of the world works," says a former US diplomat who spent several years in Iraq prior to the Gulf War.
But the playing of diplomatic games did benefit Mr. Hussein somewhat in the aftermath of the Gulf War, by hampering, and ultimately ending, the work of UN-sanctioned weapons inspections.
For instance, in October 1997 Iraq demanded that all Americans on the UN Special Commission inspections team leave, branding them "spies." The Americans left temporarily and returned in late November of that year.
In January 1998, Iraq again complained about the prevalence of US and British inspectors, and withdrew cooperation. Days later it began refusing inspection of so-called "presidential sites."
A compromise brokered by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan allowed the inspections to resume, but by December 1998 the UN Special Commission determined that Iraq was not cooperating, and withdrew its teams. Four days of US and British airstrikes followed.
"The dominant factor then was a determined Iraqi effort to avoid full compliance with inspections," says Joe Cirincione, an arms control expert with the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace. "This was complicated by certain excesses of the inspectors.... There was spying that went on in the inspection teams, so when Iraq complained about this they had a point."
Mr. Cirincione believes that in the current instance Iraq will be obstinant only up to a point.
"Iraq will do whatever the Security Council tells it to do as long as the Security Council is united," he says. "That's been the history of the inspections process."
Iraq would almost certainly prefer existing UN agreements governing inspections to any new deal outlined by new resolutions.
The current UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission is considered badly flawed by US officials. Its staff must be made up only of current UN employees, for instance, ruling out most previous inspectors. Under documents struck in the past with Iraq it would have to negotiate for access to sites deemed sensitive by Baghdad, among other things.
Writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report.