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?
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.”