The myth of the all-powerful Ahmadinejad
By Philip Giraldi
In the wake of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's much-publicized visit to
New York, we are hearing renewed calls for a "tough on Iran" agenda. But before
Washington makes policy on the basis of his bizarre and often offensive
statements, they should consider one important fact: his actual authority as
Iranian president is very limited.
Contrary to the assertions of Columbia president Lee Bollinger last week,
Ahmadinejad is no "petty and cruel dictator". He is an
elected president with very little power, frequently at odds with the country's
religious leadership and its Parliament. Even if Iran had a nuclear arsenal,
which it does not, his finger would not be on the trigger. Ahmadinejad is
extremely unpopular for a variety of reasons; if he runs for president again in
2009, he will almost certainly be defeated. He does not command the Iranian
armed forces and he does not determine Iranian foreign policy. Far from being a
belligerent expansionistic power, the last time Iran attacked a neighbor was in
the 17th century.
This is not to say that the United States does not have genuine issues with
Iran. They include containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, determination of its
legitimate and possibly illegitimate roles in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq,
reducing its involvement with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and improvement
of its generally unsatisfactory human rights record. All of those bones of
contention should be on the negotiating table with the ultimate objective of
encouraging a peaceful and democratic Iran that has full and normal relations
with all other countries, including the United States. But the George W Bush
administration has preferred the stick to the carrot, starting with consigning
Iran to the "axis of evil" in January 2002.
The White House currently insists that it is exercising the diplomatic option
with Iran, even though it is not. Bilateral sessions in Baghdad have consisted
of little more than staking out adversarial positions. The United States is
demanding that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment program as a precondition
for serious negotiations, but Iran is legally entitled to carry out enrichment
as part of an energy program and both the Iranian public and the government are
strongly supportive of that right. The US insistence on Iranian capitulation in
advance of any talks means that the negotiations are intended to be a
non-starter, leaving only a military solution to the Iran problem.
Many of the claims of Iranian interference in Iraq and Afghanistan are based on
unverifiable assertions by the US Defense Department or have been contradicted
by the Iraqi and Afghan governments, both of which insist that they have
positive working relationships with Tehran. Iran has every reason to favor a
stable Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of its own self-interest. While Iranian
military equipment has shown up in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no real
evidence of Iranian government involvement due to the large gray and black arms
market in central Asia.
Nor is there any solid information at the present time suggesting that Iran is
seeking to develop nuclear weapons, even though the intelligence services of a
number of countries agree that there most probably is a concealed program. Most
analysts agree that an Iranian produced crude nuclear device is years away and
may never be achievable given the technological problems that Tehran has
reportedly been experiencing. US media reports and commentary by American
politicians suggesting that Tehran has been actively targeting American
soldiers and is hellbent on becoming a nuclear power should be examined
carefully and skeptically.
And it is particularly unfortunate that Congress has proven unwilling to do
anything to slow the march to war. The passage of a more punitive Iran
Sanctions Act in July, coupled with last week's approval by a 77 to 22 Senate
vote of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment to the Defense Procurement bill, have
provided a virtual carte blanche for the White House to attack Iran at will.
Kyl-Lieberman called for classifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as
a terrorist group and provided the White House with language to justify the use
of military force against Tehran. The unwillingness of the Senate and House to
insist on a bill forbidding a new war without Congressional approval
demonstrates that Democrats and Republicans alike have difficulty in seeing
past Ahmadinejad to consider the genuine downside that would result from
another conflict in the Middle East.
Philip Giraldi, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, is the
Francis Walsingham Fellow for the American Conservative Defense Alliance.