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Ahmedinejad, rhetoric and sanctions on Iran

The war of words between the United States and Iran continues. Last week the President of Iran (Mahmoud Ahmedinejad) was locked in conflict with the President of Columbia University. Ahmedinijad’s talk at Columbia was a prologue to his speech at the United Nations. Both events, each with their own elements of drama and farce, nonetheless underscore the fact that a new international consensus on Iran’s nuclear program is being forged. What is substance and what is rhetoric in all of this?

It is easy for people on the west to write of Ahmedinejad as a buffoon. The president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, made an error in launching the attack on him the way that he did. It would have been much better had he simply made a statement that distanced himself from Ahmedinijad’s policies and views but claimed the high-ground in terms of the democratic principles of the United States which encourages debate on issues such as human rights (including the rights of homosexuals). To insult a guest is not appropriate behavior in most countries. Iran is no exception. Even reformist groups in Iran felt that by insulting the President, the legal representative of Iran, Iran itself was insulted. Ahmedinijad may appear foolish but he must be read through Iranian eyes. He is a populist and he knows how his actions will be read where in counts, i.e. amongst his political supporters. By giving him importance in the way that both the New York press (‘The Evil has Landed’) and the President of Columbia has done, his status amongst his political supporters in Iran is thereby increased. Rhetoric is part of the substance and not simply in Iran or with respect to Iranian policy. Media events have political consequences and in this respect, Ahmedinijad is not to be taken as a mere buffoon. For an understanding of the motivation of leaders in Tehran, a greater level of sophistication is required.

What of the UN performance? Ahmedinijad attacked the permanent members of the Security Council. He did so in rhetorical terms that would appeal not only to his supporters in Iran but to similar groups in the Middle East. By identifying the permanent members as ‘arrogant powers’, he is reminding his audience of a history of colonialism and insensitivity. By stating that he would ignore the decisions of the Security Council he is re-asserting Iranian independence. By confirming the relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency he is showing Iran’s willingness to enter into discussions. This is aimed at a domestic audience but also at gathering support from other states that irritate the United States such as Venezuela. He and the power brokers in Tehran know that Iran is now facing the possibility of significant new sanctions. Ahmedinijad knows that the decisions of the Security Council will have weight and will not be ignored (provided it can reach a conclusion). France, a considerable investor in Iran, is pursing the issue of tougher sanctions and is seeking a basis for closer cooperation with the United States. Sarkozey (the French President) has modified the remarks made by his Foreign Minister on the possible use of force. France’s policy, just as Sarkozy first announced it, is essentially one of seeking tougher international sanctions on the understanding that this will help avoid the possibility of a military option being excercised by the United States.

In the United States, the political stance against Iran is hardening. Iran has a legitimate right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It also has near neighbors with nuclear weapons (Israel is suspected of having nuclear weapons and Pakistan has such weapons). Iran has its own fears and concerns that are not simply confined to what the Americans are involved with in Iraq. Ahmedinijad is signaling that Tehran will not give up its national and regional ambitions in a hurry. He is also playing for time. Meanwhile, President Bush is trying to build international agreement that will lead to a new round of sanctions either within the United Nations (China and Russia need to be on board for this to happen) or outside of it.