What Are They Up To in Tehran?

Last night I wondered out loud what President Ahmadinejad of Iran is up to. On one hand, U.S. and NATO activity in Afghanistan and Iraq could feel a lot like encirclement, especially for a country that has made hatred of the United States a public policy.

A crash nuclear program would then be a rational attempt to regain leverage. Mr. Ahmadinejad has no doubt absorbed the lesson of the Persian Gulf War, reportedly articulated by the chief of staff of the Indian military: “Don’t fight the Americans without nuclear weapons.” (1)

On the other hand, why on Earth is Mr. Ahmadinejad providing such a prominent stage for Holocaust denial? The recent conference is sure to outrage the West and portray Iran as “koo-koo-nutty” in the minds of U.S. voters. (For example, see the report of Frederick Toben and Richard Krege on their trip to present at the conference.) Why is Mr. Ahmadinejad predicting that Israel will soon be “wiped out,” apparently at a press conference?

It’s not because of U.S. response to Sept. 11 or the war in Iraq. Ayatollah Khamenei made the same proposal in 2000 (via Wikipedia).

If Mr. Ahmadinejad learned from the Persian Gulf War, he has also learned from the present Iraq War. His strategy against the West rests on three strong legs: (a) the nuclear development program, to provide Iran with a “Sampson option;” (b) asymetrical warfare of the type practiced by proxies against Israel in Lebanon and against the Iraqi government and the U.S. in Iraq; and (c) opinion warfare in the press and intelligentsia of the West.

The Holocaust conference falls in the latter category. It is positioned as a defense of free speech:

Manouchehr Mottaki [the foreign minister of Iran] told participants the event did not seek to confirm or deny the Holocaust, but rather to allow people to “express their views freely”. … “Its main aim is to create an opportunity for thinkers who cannot express their views freely in Europe about the Holocaust,” he said. [BBC]

Perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad calculated the free speech cloak would paralyze or divide his Western critics, as the West is divided over Saddam Hussein’s trial or the status of prisoners from Afghanistan. Now, James Lileks speculates that Mr. Ahmadinejad is laying the intellectual groundwork for an attack on Israel (via Instapundit). Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Times says (via Captain’s Quarters):

To Ahmadinejad, attacking the legitimacy of the Holocaust allows him to attack the legitimacy of Israel, which was created by the United Nations as a result of the Holocaust. If the first act didn’t happen, then the second act wasn’t necessary.

The Iranian president wrapped his hateful nonsense in the false mantle of free speech. …

I prefer the first Mr. Ahmadinejad: rational, subject to negotiation and deterrence, capable of a modus vivendi.

On the other hand, note the protests at a recent speech by Mr. Ahmadinejad (via Powerline). And the trailer for this film suggests a people with great humor, patriotism, and a lot more on their minds than America and the U.S. (see also Breathless 7 and Time).

(1) I found this remark quoted as early as 1996, but it sounds apocryphal. Can anyone verify?

UPDATE: The New York Times:

Just as Soviet leaders used to invite Americans who suffered racial or political discrimination to Moscow to embarrass Washington, Mr. Ahmadinejad seems to enjoy pointing out that countries like Germany, France and Austria claim to champion free debate yet have made Holocaust denial illegal. …

“It is for public consumption in Arab countries,” said Mustafa El-Labbad, editor of Sharqnameh, a magazine specializing in Iranian affairs and published in Cairo. “It is specifically directed toward deepening the gap between the people and their regimes and toward embarrassing the rulers so that the regional power vacuum, especially after Iraq, can be filled by Iran.”

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6 Responses to “What Are They Up To in Tehran?”

  1. reportcard Says:

    All good thoughts.

    Ahmadinejad’s increasing defiance of the western world over the past few years can be taken two ways. He may feel threatened that we have him surrounded, or he thinks that too many of our resources are currently deployed to launch an effective third front in the war on terror. Most likely a combination of both has propelled his recent actions.

    Ahmadinejad must remember, however, that if he should attack Israel a counter attack from the USA may not come from the military. He must also worry about personal attacks, as in assassination attempts, from either Iranian citizens loyal to the USA, or from the CIA itself. Cutting off the head of this theocracy may be enough to keep it at bay. If military resources are thin when the time comes to handle Iran militarily, look for this to be a possible solution

  2. Timothy Says:

    Reportcard,

    Thanks very much for your comment. Your alternatives of opportunism and apprehension make sense to me. Unfortunately, our responses are opposed: if Iran sees us as stretched too thin for confrontation, we should counter with a show of force; if it sees us as threatening, we should respond with diplomatic engagement, exchange of military observers, etc. Which is it? Mr. A doesn’t seem to feel anything but self-confidence.

    Worse, the necessary show of force is probably not physical (a carrier group) but psychological and moral (unity and resolve on Iraq).

    I’m not sure that an attack on Israel would draw an immediate U.S. response – after Pearl Harbor, we hardly rushed to war with Germany. Of course, with our troops in Iraq already engaged with Iranian proxies, we could hardly avoid getting drawn in.

    Likewise, I would worry about Mr. Ahmadinejad’s replacement if he was deposed except by a genuine domestic movement. As I understand it we still have a fair amount of goodwill among Iranians, which we should not squander.

  3. reportcard Says:

    The alternatives do seem opposed now that I read them again. It is my mistake for not writing clearly at such a late hour. The two alternatives did not occur simultaneously, rather one resulted from the other. This is what I meant by Most likely a combination of both has propelled his recent actions.

    Please allow me to expand. I believe that Ahmadinejad’s primary objectives in sending Iranian proxies into Iraq are the following.

    1) To assist Shiite forces in possibly gaining control of the country.
    2) He felt threatened by U.S. forces along two of his borders.

    To his delight, sending proxies into Iraq assisted in bogging down U.S. troops. As the American public became more disenfranchised, he formed the opinion that U.S. forces are spread too thin and the American Administration was too impotent to send more due to political pressure at home. Thus, he sees an opportunity and becomes emboldened. His current state of mind warrants a show of force. The time for diplomacy has passed…for now. It may or may not reappear after a show of force, depending on how we choose to show it.

    You make an excellent point on a psychological show of force as opposed to physical. Another good reason why we should not leave Iraq until our objectives can be met. We must, however, change the methods at which we accomplish those goals, as the current methods have been to slow to produce results showing strength.

    We declared War the day after Pearl Harbor. Although we were building our military armaments prior to the Dec. 7th attack, production and transport of resources was much slower in that era. Our current treaty with Israel compels us to assist if they are attacked. I agree that direct military engagement would hardly be avoidable due to our current situation.

    As to deposition of Ahmadinejad by means other than genuine domestic movement, my meaning was that it may delay secondary attacks on Israeli or American targets after the primary assault; by either confusion, hesitation, or a power struggle to replace him. Assuming primary and secondary attacks would be nuclear (the primary being against Israel, the secondary being against U.S. troop positions in Iraq or Israel) I believe that the lives spared by possibly avoiding the secondary attack would justify any goodwill lost among Iranians. This is all, of course, assuming a worst case scenario of an Iranian attack on Israel. I, in no way, meant that assassination should be used in a preemptive manner.

  4. Timothy Says:

    Reportcard,

    I didn’t mean that the alternatives were mutually exclusive but that it is difficult to craft a U.S. response that is appropriate for both.

    I agree with your larger point, that Iran is now predominantly opportunistic, and believes that by seizing the main chance, it can end as master of Iraq as Syria was of Lebanon.

    What do you think of John Hinderaker’s “Cuban Missile Crisis” proposal at Power Line?

    My WWII point, which I couldn’t phrase clearly last night, was that I don’t think that Congress or U.S. public opinion was interested in fighting Germany even after Pearl Harbor, until Hitler made it moot. I think an Iranian attack on Israel would get a similar reaction, treaty obligations notwithstanding.

    As for decapitation, I am with you unless anarchy would make the war harder to win (no one to negotiate) or make it more likey that nuclear materials would get lost. Also, tough to do with Mr. Ahmadinejad in a “secure, undisclosed location.”

  5. reportcard Says:

    Timothy,

    Hinderaker’s article, even with the second to last paragraph recognizing support of only half the county, may over estimate the President’s current influence with the American people and the world. Cynics think the administration fabricated intelligence as a means to go into Iraq. Supporters, at best, think the administration simply got it wrong. Hinderaker’s plan is fantastic, if we had a President with the political capital of a John F. Kennedy in 1962.

    Kennedy’s approval rating just before the Cuban Missile Crisis went public stood at 61% (despite the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion). Bush’s approval rating currently stands at 38%. We are looking at a current President who is, unfortunately, bankrupt when it comes to political capital. Hinderaker’s estimate of 50% of the American public backing a move like this is much too high in my estimation. The American media, of course, does not help the situation.

    Kennedy enjoyed a different kind of media. To be brief, they loved him. His charisma and on-camera delivery style made a majority of reporters enjoy portraying him in a good light. When today’s media is not showing Bush looking smug while on camera, they are usually showing him looking confused. Seemingly puzzled beyond recovery at the conversations and events taking place around him. Bush doesn’t help this persona with his plain spoken style, which often comes off as simplistic. It seems to the viewer as though he is just beginning to comprehend the issues at hand, or is speaking down to the people so they can understand him. The media has too much invested in attacking Bush, if they stop now and begin supporting a bolder plan, they will risk losing all credibility with their already dwindling viewers. It is something they will not risk.

    Additionally, this President has already had his Cuban Missile Crisis Speech. It was given in front of Congress and laid out the reasons to the American Public and the World for going to war in Iraq. Primarily, weapons of mass destruction. A similar speech will be portrayed as laughable as “why should we trust you this time George” commentaries ring across the airwaves.

    Should he do it anyway…Yes. Perhaps not give the speech himself, after ordering the air strikes. An address by Robert Gates may win over more hearts and minds. You portray it as the newly appointed Secretary of Defense’s idea, and announce it as part of the highly anticipated change of strategy for Iraq. Have Gates do it in January, lay out the evidence of Iranian involvement, tell the public we must attack the insurgency from it’s source, announce the air strikes, outline the new strategy for Iraq.

    Gates is will be a less likely target compared to Bush. His recent support by both Republicans and Democrats in the confirmation process will make him harder to attack. The President can take questions and comment on the plan in the following morning’s White House Press Briefing.

    I like Hinderaker’s Plan, but it cannot be Bush who gives the speech. It will be taken much better if someone, anyone, other than the President delivers the news. This strategy is one of the better one’s I’ve heard. The next questions: Does it get us out of Iraq any faster? Will it get us closer to accomplishing our primary objectives in Iraq? Will it be significantly effective as the next move in the overall war on terror?

    Your thoughts?

  6. Timothy Says:

    Reportcard,

    All good points. John Hinderaker makes the president’s lack of support a reason for this “last-stand” strategy. I think the lack of support is a reason not to do it, when there are are other cards to play. One of the Power Line Forum commenters suggested economic pressure (e.g. an oil blockade and/or strikes on refineries). Or one could try to face down Iran by striking terrorist assets in Syria, Iran’s weaker partner.

    Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported a poll showing “overwhelming support for Congress taking control of policy and forcing [Bush] to bring the troops home.” Unless and until we see traction in Iraq, attacking Iran would meet universal condemnation.

    I wrote a little more about this in “John Hinderaker’s Modest Proposal for Iran.”

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