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Why U.S. Neocons Want Ahmadinejad to Win

American conservatives and Iranian hard-liners need each other.

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Similarly, there is little difference between the two presidential front-runners regarding Iraq and Afghanistan either, since there is a broad consensus that Iran has a right to support allied elements and to marginalize potentially hostile elements in these two bordering countries.

And, despite Ahmadinejad's hostile rhetoric regarding Israel, Iran is on record supporting the Islamic Conference in endorsing the Arab League's peace plan calling for normal relations and non-aggression toward Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories seized in the June 1967 war.

A Clash of Fundamentalisms

I had a chance to meet Ahmadinejad when he came to New York for the General Assembly in October 2007. I was unimpressed. Indeed, he came across as more pathetic than evil.

He was clearly someone sincerely devout in his religious faith, yet rather superficial in his understanding and inclined to twist his faith tradition in ways to correspond with his preconceived ideological positions.

He was rather evasive when it came to specific questions and was not terribly coherent, relying more on platitudes than analysis and would tend to get his facts wrong. In short, he reminded me in many respects of the man who was then serving as our president.

Both Ahmadinejad and George W. Bush used their fundamentalist interpretations of their respective faith traditions to place the world in a Manichean perspective of good versus evil. The certitude of their positions regardless of evidence to the contrary, their sense that they are part of a divine mission, and their largely successful manipulation of their devoutly religious constituents was what put these two nations on such a dangerous confrontational course in recent years.

It is unfortunate that Ahmadinejad is apparently remaining in office despite the fact that the United States now has a reformer in the White House. It was similarly unfortunate timing that when it was Iran that had the reformist president -- Ahmadinejad's predecessor Mohammed Khatami -- it was Bush who was in office.

Indeed, Khatami offered strict safeguards and oversight of Iran's nuclear weapons program along the lines now being demanded by the United States, as well as an end to its support for terrorist groups and peaceful relations with Israel in return for the U.S. lifting its sanctions, ending efforts to destabilize the government and normalizing relations. The Bush administration refused the offer, however.

It was this refusal to deal, combined with strengthened sanctions -- some of which were initiated under the Clinton administration when Khatami was first elected -- that sent the message to Iranians that conciliatory efforts by reformers would be rejected.

On top of that, the U.S. invasion of two of Iraq's immediate neighbors in 2001 and 2003, combined with open calls of "regime change" in Iran, likely helped make possible the conservative victories in the 2005 Iranian election.

Ahmadinejad's first election was not necessarily evidence of a turn to the right by the Iranian electorate regarding domestic policy either. The clerical leadership's restrictions on who could run made it nearly impossible for any real reformist to emerge as a presidential contender.

Ahmadinejad's opponent in the runoff election was the 70-year-old Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who was seen as a corrupt representative of the political establishment. The fact that he had become a millionaire while in government overshadowed his modest reform agenda. By contrast, Ahmadinejad, the relatively young Tehran mayor, focused on the plight of the poor and cleaning up corruption.

As a result, Iranian voters were forced to choose between two flawed candidates in the 2005 presidential race. The relatively liberal contender came across as an out-of-touch elitist, and his ultraconservative opponent was able to assemble a coalition of rural, less-educated and fundamentalist voters to conduct a pseudopopulist campaign based on promoting morality and value-centered leadership to eke out a narrow victory.