A massive controversy has erupted in the United States, and around the world, around Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York where he spoke at the United Nations and Columbia University.
Who is this man and what does he want? Is he a new Hitler or a leader with understandable grievances who should be engaged in dialogue? Apart from the passion provoked and naïveté too often shown toward this leader, how can we accurately assess him? Ahmadinejad is a demagogue on a lot of issues for three distinct reasons:
First, he is trying to use his radical stance-extreme even on the already extreme Iranian political spectrum-to gain control of the country. As head of a faction and due to personal ambition he is trying to displace other groups. After all, supreme guide Ali Khamenei remains the single most powerful person in Iran and Ahmadinejad real rival within the country.
Second, Ahmadinejad is pursuing the Iranian Islamist revolution’s long-term goal-but one not always given top priority by the regime-of spreading Islamist revolution throughout the region and emerging as the most powerful force in the Middle East. In terms of promoting Iran’s primacy, there is an inherent nationalist as well as Islamist element in his policy.
Third, Ahmadinejad seems to be a true believer in the Iranian Islamist ideology which sees international politics as a struggle between the true followers of the deity and the allies of Satan. Ahmadinejad’s goals, then, are his control over Iran, Iran’s control over the Persian Gulf area (especially Iraq), Israel’s destruction, Iranian leadership over the Middle East, and even world domination, in roughly that order.
Basically, Ahmadinejad is not a unique phenomenon in modern Middle East history. The role to be filled is that of the leader of the Arabs and Muslims as well as prime enemy of America, Israel, and the West. In this respect, he is comparable to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s; Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1970s and 1980s; Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 1990s; and Usama bin Ladin during the period before and especially after September 11, 2001. Yet Ahmadinejad has also become a symbol for the radical Islamist challenge to everyone else in the world.
What makes Ahmadinejad different? The key element here, and one due to his own words and behavior, is that he seems not to be held back by caution, a rational calculation of the balance of forces. In other words, he seems capable of anything and consequently far more dangerous. This conclusion is not just a matter of Western projection. I’ll bet that at times he scares even Khamenei.
Here are some elements in that set of problems:
Ahmadinejad makes statements implying his belief that the end of the world is at hand and the Shia messiah is on the way. Thus, provoking war with Israel or the United States is not so much to be seen as risking the destruction of Iran’s Islamist regime as fulfilling its divine mission.
For a number of reasons, Ahmadinejad thinks that his side is winning and the West is weak and in retreat. That could provoke him to even more extreme adventurism.
While other Iranian leaders have spoken about Israel’s destruction, he is putting it higher on his agenda and is more likely to do something to try to implement this objective.
He might have nuclear weapons to play with in fulfilling his goals. Two important points should be noted here. First, the bombs and missiles would be held by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, his close ally and the main liaison between Iran and terrorist groups, itself raising the prospect of their being used. Second, even if Iran never used nuclear weapons the effect on the region would be devastating. Arab governments would rush to appease Iran; large numbers of Arabs would rush to join radical Islamist groups believing that this movement is the wave of the future.
In Iraq, Iran has gone into a virtual state of war against the United States trying to project Tehran’s influence and killing American soldiers.
Ahmadinejad has also become, for all practical purposes, the leader in promoting hatred of the United States and not only of Israel but of Jews in general.
What undercuts the dangers posed by Ahmadinejad? He does not yet have full control over Iran and may never achieve this goal. Since he is a Shia Muslim and is not an Arab it is more difficult for him to play a leadership role over the largely Sunni Muslim Arabic-speaking world. Not impossible, as these barriers have been partly overcome, but harder nonetheless.
Thus, Ahmadinejad has not yet achieved the status of being equivalent to Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin as the world’s leading threat to peace and freedom but he is certainly trying to rise to this level.
It should be rather obvious that this is not a problem caused by lack of communication and that engagement with him will not have any moderating effect. He must be opposed and his regime pressured. Aside from the problems posed by the Iranian government in general, taking a tough stand against Ahmadinejad is necessary to convince his colleague-rivals that they must get rid of this guy and tone down their country’s behavior in order to ensure their own survival and that of their regime.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).