—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
4 February 2006

Iranís Ahmadinejad: fulfiller of stereotypes

Now here's something to ponder. Imagine you were the recently 'elected' head of a reactionary theocratic regime in the Middle East. Imagine you were at a moment in history when followers of this particular religious denomination were in grave danger of being anathematized into a corner, both in their home countries and in the Western world. Imagine that your country borders a nation which was recently invaded on the mere pretense of possessing weapons of mass destruction. Imagine that your country has openly expressed its desire to acquire technology that can be utilised in the creation of just such weapons. Imagine that your nation was badly in need of a moral defence from a hypocritical superpower. Imagine all this, and then ask yourself if you would do what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did, which was to declare firstly that Israel must be 'wiped off the map', and later that the Nazi Holocaust was a myth?

It's no mean feat to extoll one genocidal program and then follow it up with the denial of another genocide: it is, in fact an act of amazing ignorance and moral brutality. One would expect to hear such rebarbative nonsense from a soccer hooligan: one does not expect to hear it from a statesman. Having impaled Israel on these twin prongs, Ahmadinejad has not only expelled himself from the pantheon of world statesmen who can be taken seriously: he has done immeasurable damage to Iran's status in the world and has given the superhawks in Israel and the US precisely the excuse they needed. Nothing is so useful to powerful nations planning to crush an adversary than the rationale that they are 'defending' themselves from such a nation. With his ham-fisted extremism, Mr. Ahmadinejad has done a terrific favour for all the drum-beating jingoists in Israel by removing all doubt. And just in case we thought this was merely a tantrum and not an ideological position, the Iranian government has just announced plans to host a conference which will call into question the authenticity of the Nazi Holocaust.

Why did Ahmadinejad do it? There does not, after all, seem to have been any political advantage. Indeed, the move only intensified Iran's already worsening isolation from the international community. On Democracy Now, analyst Ervand Abrahamian postulated that Iran was trying to be 'more Catholic than the Pope'[1] because the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq with close ties to the Islamic Repblic over the border is embarrasing to Iran on account of the Iraqi government being US-constructed. So to keep the Sunni-dominated Arab world 'on side', Iran's posturing must include extremist anti-Israel rhetoric.

I don't buy it. There's a grain of truth to the claim that post-revolutionary Iran has been a worry for the Gulf states and especially Saudi Arabia (whose population features a substantial Shiite minority) since Khomeini fulminated against 'the anti-Koranic ideas propagating the baseless and superstitious cult of Wahhabism'[2] - i.e. the Sunni oligarchy which runs the country. And during the early years of the Iran-Iraq war, when the tide began to turn against Saddam, the Arabs had substantial reason to fear the consequences of the Persian hordes toppling the regime in Baghdad. As explained by Robert Fisk:

Khomeini spoke repeatedly of the suffering of Iraqi Shiites, releasing their century-old political frustrations. Would he any longer be satisfied with the head of Saddam? He would surely want an Iraqi regime that was loyal to him, a vassal state of Iran, or so the Arabs began to fear.
       It was not hard to fathom what this might involve. The largest community in Lebanon - though not a majority - was Shia. Syria was effectively ruled by the Alawites, a Shia sect in all but name. If Iraq were to fall to its own majority Shiites, there could be a Shia state from the Mediterranean to the borders of Afghanistan, with both oil and the waters of the two great rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With both Iranian and Iraqi oil, Khomeini could undercut OPEC and control world prices, let alone dominate the waters of the Gulf and the Arab peninsula. That, at least was the nightmare of the Arabs and the Americans, one that Saddam was happy to promote.[3]
And yet, and yet. Despite this backdrop, the thesis that Iranian extremism can assuage Arab (and thus regional) fears is hardly convincing. It scarcely needs to be demonstrated that Iran is one of America's most strident ideological opponents (the Iran-Contra scandal and some assistance with the recent removal of the Taliban notwithstanding[4]). It's difficult to believe that an imeptus as feeble as a putatively US-constructed, Shiite-dominated regime in Iraq would prompt Iran to try to re-establish its anti-US credentials, particularly by so tangential a method as endorsing the destruction of Israel. The political balance sheet of this act looks very poor indeed.

The only other thinkable explanation is that Iran is attempting to project a persona of dangerous unpredictability and even lunacy so that its enemies will not dare to second-guess it. Ironically, this is a distinctly American tactic. President Nixon once endorsed the idea of a 'madman theory' - the attempt to convince his foreign (Communist) enemies that the US could not be counted upon to respond rationally to threats, and thus could react with catastrophic capriciousness to any provocation. Israeli General Moshe Dayan appears to have had similar ideas, for he was once quoted as saying: 'Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.'[5]

Nevertheless, for Iran to play such a high-stakes game in an era of pre-emptive wars is hardly a wise move. Everyone knows that Iran's Shahab-3 missile is capable of reaching Tel Aviv. Israel's main preoccupation at present is that this weapon should not go nuclear. The Israelis are not likely to sit idly by and watch a country who has openly endorsed their destruction take steps towards the practical expression of that wish. By acting as Israel's regional incubus, Ahmajinedad has stupidly taken the focus off Israel's and America's own nuclear hypocrisy and shooed away most sympathizers Iran might have had in the world at large.

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1 Democracy Now, 13 January 2006
2 Quoted in Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, Fourth Estate, London, 2005, p. 153
3 Ibid., p. 250. Lebanon's Shiite militias Amal and Hezbollah have always been Iranian-backed. Hezbollah's spiritual leader Sheikh Fadlallah once described Lebanon as 'a lung through which Iran breathes' (Quoted in ibid., p. 976)
4 According to Seymour Hersh, 'Iran, which had long-standing religious and political ties to Afghanistan, had offered to let American search-and-rescue helicopter stage operations from bases on its soil and had relayed sensitive intelligence from Afghanistan to the United States.' (Seymour Hersh, Chain of Command, Allen Lane, London, 2004, p. 342
5 Quoted in David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, (Third Edition), Nation Books, New York, 2003, p. 119)