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May 9, 2006
Iran Expert: Ahmadinejad Letter A Defiant Challenge

The German magazine Der Speigel interviewed an expert on Iran regarding the letter from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to George Bush and its purpose. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh tells Der Spiegel that far from an act of potential conciliation, the Iranian president sent the letter as an act of defiance -- and warns that Ahmadinejad is not bluffing in this crisis:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Wahdat-Hagh, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to US President George W. Bush. In the letter, he once again questions Israel's right to exist, accuses the US of lying about Iraq and insists on his country's right to use nuclear technology. What message is Ahmadinejad trying to communicate?

Wahdat-Hagh: The purpose is to show strength. It's Ahmadinejad's way of saying: "We are powerful! You are a cowboy! Islam, though, is the true democracy and your system will collapse." Former Iranian President Khatami used to give interviews to CNN. But Ahmadinejad has gone directly to Bush and told him straight to his face that Iran is going to continue with the strategy it has thus far followed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The letter, in other words, doesn't open up any new options for the West to convince Iran to give up its nuclear program.

Wahdat-Hagh: Ali Ardashir Larijani, the head of the country's Supreme National Security Council, has already said that the letter can't be read as a watering down of the Iranian position. On the day that the UN Security Council once again addresses the issue of Iran, Ahmadinejad could have said: "I'll make some concessions on our uranium enrichment program." But he's not willing to do that. Instead, he points to American mistakes -- for example in Iraq.

That gets to the heart of the hyperbole over this supposed attempt at a breakthrough. If Ahmadinejad wanted to create an opening for peace, all he needed to say was that Iran would negotiate on uranium enrichment, perhaps accepting the Russian offer to supply Teheran with uranium suitable for peaceful energy production and not weapons. He didn't need to write George Bush a letter; he could just as easily sent Larijani to the IAEA or to the UN Security Council to negotiate their compliance with the NPT.

Wahdat-Hagh, who works for MEMRI, also disagrees with those who claim that the Iranian nuclear program amounts to a giant bluff. He tells Der Spiegel that the Iranian rocket program is very real, and that their nuclear-weapons program is no vaporware either. The Iranian mullahcracy intends on transforming itself into Southwest Asia's leading military power, and have developed the rockets and new domestically-produced submarines to show its reach throughout the region. It has a strategic point with which to extort concessions from nations around the world: the Straits of Hormuz, through which most of the oil produced in the area gets shipped. Nuclear weapons represent the final key, the most powerful component with which to catapult Iran into the same class as Pakistan, India, and the West.

In fact, as Wahdat-Hagh points out, the arrogance of a Muslim leader posing as a lecturer on Christianity is quite deliberate and intended to humiliate Bush in the eyes of Iranians. Ahmadinejad does not want Iranians to see him as respectful or deferential to the Great Satan, but scolding and condescending. It establishes him as Bush's superior and shows Iranians that he does not fear the US, but is contemptuous of it. On the other hand, Ahmandinejad knows that the West will interpret this much differently -- as an extension of dialogue, and a potential diplomatic opening. Ahmadinejad wanted Bush to respond to his missive with a plea for more contact, a reaction that would have had a much different impression in Iran and the Middle East than it would in the West.

Many people assume that Ahmadinejad enjoys popular support, or at least his nuclear program does, but Wahdat-Hagh disputes this. He points to surveys performed under careful conditions that show much less unity than the mullahcracy will adknowledge, and even the peaceful use of nuclear energy has some in Iran nervous about the regime's intentions. The amount of domestic support has always been overestimated; it's possible that this might even fuel the mullahcracy's drive for nuclear weapons -- in order to keep outsiders from empowering democratic activists.

Right now, it appears that many in the West have fallen into Ahmadinejad's trap with his letter. Fortunately, it also appears that Bush and his foreign-policy team are not among them.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 9, 2006 8:12 PM

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