The Madness of Iran's President

Why would the President of Iran, Ahmadinejad, make inflammatory comments about Israel at the very moment when Ariel Sharon would have every reason to flex their muscular foreign policy? This is the question floating around foreign policy circles this week after the Iranian hard-liner took his anti-Israel exrtemism one more step, seeming to deny the severity of the Holocaust while reaffirming his notion that the Jews who live there should go back to Europe.

Ahmadinejad may not even be aware that the majority of Israelis today derive from Sephardic/Mizrachi backgrounds -- their families came as refugees fleeing oppression in Arab and Islamic countries, including Iran -- and it is they, not the Ashkenazic minority from European backgrounds who have given electoral majorities to Ariel Sharon and the right-wing parties who oppose peaceful reconciliation with the Palestinian people. Tens of thousands fled from anti-Semitism in Iran and Iraq, hundreds of thousands from other Muslim countries.

Ignorance of this history is no excuse. Ahmadinejad must be understood as a godsend for Sharon and the Israeli right who have had increasing trouble convincing anyone in the world that there is a credible threat to Israeli security. The arguments for the Wall and Occupation, the militarization of Israeli society, the denial of human rights, and the rejection of international agreements limiting nuclear weapons have all been based in part on the alleged threat to Israel's very existence by the Palestinian people backed by hostile neighbors.

Several recent trends have served to undermine this logic. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties, the Palestinians have transformed their national Covenant to eliminate any call for the destruction of Israel, and Iraq's Baathist regime was declawed and dismantled. It's been harder and harder for Israeli hawks to explain where exactly the threat would come from.

Iranian intransigence on nuclear disarmament has now provided a new source of fear for the fear-mongers, and the specific calls by the President of Iran to eliminate Israel from the map of the world and to minimize the suffering from the Holocaust will strike a nerve that Sharon and other right-wingers can easily manipulate as they enter the election period ahead.

There is some danger that Israel might make an immediate strike at Iranian nuclear facilities. Though doing so would be a violation of international law and would have little military impact, a strike might strengthen Sharon's electoral chances now that he has broken with the most hard-line elements of the Likud to form an allegedly "centrist" party to compete with a Labor Party moving leftward. Sharon is being faulted by the Right for his withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza and his promise to settle the Palestinian issue "once and for all." A military strike at Iran, either before the elections or in the coming year would provide the perfect political cover for accusations that Sharon's compromises made with Palestinians signal weakness in his policies.

Such a strike would also help President Ahmadinejad consolidate his position with Iranians. The stretch to resuscitate old-fashioned anti-Semitic tropes against the Jews as "outsiders" (the same kind of rhetoric used against minorities everywhere) did not play so well in Iran and required the intervention and backup of the highest Iranian religious authority to withstand the criticism that Ahmandinejad received.

But if this upstart young president could maneuver Israel into a unilateral military assault on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities he would be laying the groundwork for retaliation should Iran ever actually gain the military strength its new alliance with China and Russia make possible. As a victim of external attack, he would also become the beneficiary of Iranian nationalist sentiments that have at times been quite distanced from the fundamentalists who currently run the state. If secular nationalists were to rally around the Ahmadinejad government in response to an Israeli attack, this new extremist would have won a major new force that could stabilize and empower his regime for years to come.

The losers: the Israeli people (and those Jews around the world who insist on giving Israel a blank check to speak in the name of the Jewish people), who will become one level closer to being perceived by most of the world as international criminals; Americans, who will be perceived as having given Sharon covert support even as our State Dept. officially denies and tries to distance; those who seek to build a world based on law transcending short-term political interests. Ahmadinejad has been playing a dangerous game and we can only pray that his recklessness will not pay off and that Israelis will restrain the opportunism and militarism that might push Sharon to active confrontation with Iran.

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