There has been a lot of talk lately about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's seeming to push the envelope towards a military confrontation with the west over Iran's nuclear program.
There are those who believe that he is insane. I don't believe that. There are those who believe that somehow he is in collaboration with the west. I don't believe that either.
I believe that he is rational. But he is like most politicians: he is first playing national politics (in his case, Iranian politics), then regional politics and finally international politics.
Within Iran, hardliners including Ahmedinejad have a problem in that most of the nation is under thirty, have no memory of the Shah or in may cases of Ayatollah Khomeini, and are increasingly unhappy living in a strict Islamic society. They want reform. So, in order to stop criticism domestically, Ahmedinejad is doing what every politician does from time to time-- seek to unify the populace against some real or perceived threat. In this context, the concerted efforts of the west and of the United States in particular against Iran's nuclear program serve his purpose. While the country is apparently being drawn towards a military conflict, there are few within Iran who would be willing to criticize Ahmedinejad. Keep in mind that Iran is not Iraq-- in Iran, there is still some level of freedom of association and of the press, and it is possible for a candidate to lose an election, so criticism does carry risk with it. And as such, a lack of criticism is good for those who are in power. What he is doing is no different substantively than when Bush and other Republicans play the '9/11 card' to shut off meaningful debate on anything.
After national politics, there are regional politics. The invasion of Iraq created a power vacuum in the Muslim world. Most muslims, especially the Palestinians, are seeking a leader, especially one who they believe will be able to defeat Israel. In fact, none can, but it is not hard to see that by taking a hard line against Israel, Ahmadinejad is hoping to be the new 'big kid on the block.'
In fact, I addressed this when I wrote in November (Iraq is the reason we won't invade Iran)
As to Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, we have to keep in mind the context. Right now, the middle east is in political turmoil. Iran is a major player in middle eastern politics and has benefitted more than anyone else from the ouster of Saddam, but they want to parlay this gain into becoming the single dominant regional power. And one sure fire way to gain political points across the region is to take a hard line against Israel. The real victims of this are the Palestinians, who have at times placed their hopes and dreams on Krushchev, Nasser, Qaddafy, Assad, Saddam, and any number of other tough talking strongmen throwing their weight around in the middle east. Invariably these hopes and dreams are dashed, and they end up worse off for betting on some swaggering savior instead of negotiations with Israel. It seems that Ahmadinejad is playing the same game, and hopefully the Palestinians will not be so gullible this time around.
Every word that Ahmadinejad has spoken since then, seems to reinforce my belief that he is trying to comandeer the Palestinian cause for his own ends, and to have Iran emerge as the dominant regional power.
As for international politics, as I mentioned before, they run in third place. But let's focus on the actual issues between Iran and the U.S. for a moment.
If Iran steps up to challenge America, right now is the best chance they will ever have to do it. The reasons are right here:
1. Our military machine, which everyone in the world was afraid of, has been squandered in Iraq. The truth is, we are toothless in terms of having the ability to invade and occupy Iran. That wasn't true five years ago, and it may not be true five years from now, but as of right now, we don't have the ground force necessary. Ahmedinejad knows that. So does President Bush.
2. True, we could bomb the crap out of them, but they have probably made the calculated gamble that they could survive a bombing campaign. And in the crazy world of middle eastern politics, we could bomb every important facility they have into dust, and if they take our best shot and survive, then they come out politically stronger for it and enhance their political standing in the region. See what I said earlier about playing regional politics.
3. Ahmedinejad and the rest of the Iranian leadership hates America, and they hate George W. Bush. The more radical things that they can say and survive, the weaker they can make him look, especially among muslims. He handed them the opportunity to embarrass him, but they aren't a bit shy about taking it. Kim Jung Il proved that you can be bellicose and stick your head in the lion's mouth while his dentures are out, and that is essentially what we have now.
Now, we do have a strategy that we can use to defeat Iranian fundamentalism over the long run, but it isn't a military strategy. And if they build nukes, well so did the Soviet Union and they succumbed to the same strategy.
Be the best society we can be. Be a society that others want to emulate. Enjoy our freedoms and use them. And, even get American capitalism involved and use constructive engagement. Some of our best weapons against these types of societies (and it is ironic that conservatives don't realize it) are McDonald's, Disney and pop music. Think about it-- there are only two completely unreconstructed old line Stalinist communist states left in the world-- the two we have a product boycott on (Cuba and North Korea).
So give the hardliners like Ahmadinejad something they really wouldn't be able to handle. Open a theme park in Tehran.