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May 11, 2006 [LINK]

That letter from Tehran

What are we to make of the 18-page letter sent by Iranian President Ahmadinejad to President Bush? Not much, unless your name is Madeleine Albright. Condoleeza Rice was right to downplay any significance of its contents, which were apparently a presumptuously toned. rambling lecture on theology, morality, and history. John Bolton, our ambassador to the U.N., opined that the letter was a negotiating ploy aimed at dividing the Western allies (see Washington Post), but even that may be giving too much credit to the Iranian government.

It was just about a month ago that Ahmadinejad issued another proclamation that Israel will soon be annihilated, though he left unclear how that would be carried out. (The gray area of doubt gave rise to an nasty little spat in the blogosphere: After Christopher Hitchens criticized Juan Cole (of the University of Michigan) for denying that Ahmadinejad had ever called for "the removal of Israel from the map," Cole retorted that Hitchens must have been drunk, prompting Andrew Sullivan to corroborate Hitchens' sobriety. My, my.) Not that trying to reason with the Iranian leaders would do much good, but if Israel really is the "threat" to the rest of the Middle East that Ahmadinejad says it is, then why is it being attacked far more often than it attacks neighboring countries?

What about discerning Iran's intentions? Just as Kremlinology was a highly valued trade during the Cold War, expertise in the inner workings of the governments of the "rogue regimes" -- Iran, North Korea, and perhaps even Venezuela -- is today. Like most of those in the realist school of international relations, however, I place relatively low emphasis on intentions. Foreign policy usually embodies a continuity based on national interest that is independent of particular leaders and governments. In the exceptional anomalous cases such as Iran, it is almost impossible to make rational sense of governmental actions; it's almost anybody's guess. Indeed, the very possibility that any high-level official in Iran's government might think that such a letter would be considered seriously and taken at face value by the U.S. government only goes to show how far out of touch from reality they are. Responsible governments exercise extreme care with such high-level communication, and the religious fanatics who run Iran are leading their country down a very dangerous path. Here are some things to remember about President Ahmad Ahmadinejad:

  • He is basically a puppet; under Iran's theocratic system, the real power is wielded by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
  • He professes an eschatological belief that the end of world is drawing near.
  • The primary significance of that professed belief is to enhance his "bluffing" credibility in a showdown; whether he truly believes those things or not is of secondary importance.
  • The outlandish rhetoric and logical inconsistencies are perfectly normal for Third World countries with ambitions to become major powers. Just think about Hugo Chavez, Muammar Qaddafi (until 2001) and Saddam Hussein (until 2003).

So what should Bush do in response? His administration is properly giving the diplomatic track every possible chance, even though the resistance of Russia and China to any strong action by the U.N. Security Council makes a peaceful resolution of this crisis very unlikely. As in the confrontations with Iraq in 1990-1991 and 2002-2003, to the extent that diplomacy is seen as an alternative to coercion (the threat or use of force), it will fail. To the extent that it is seen as a supplementary course of action, there will be a greater chance of success without resorting to war. As far as the utility of economic sanctions, they are generally futile, serving mainly as a gesture of resolve that is equivalent to cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. In this particular situation, any threat of U.N. sanctions would be undermined by the erosion of the sanctions that had been imposed against Saddam Hussein's regime, rendering them a farce. If President Bush wants to show Iran's government that he is serious about cutting off the oil trade, of course, he should stop saying we are "addicted to oil."

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 11 May 2006, 10: 33 PM

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