Thursday, October 27, 2005

Ahmadinejad's Harsh Words Pose No Danger to Israel

President Ahmadinejad uses harsh words, but Iran still holds no danger for Israel

William O. Beeman

Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has once again caused a planetary stir with rhetoric that has been reported as calling for Israel—to be precise, Mr. Ahmadinejad used the words “Zionist regime”—to be “wiped off the map” at a youth seminar in Tehran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s pronouncement was both naive and unwise when measured in terms of international politics. However, it is something quite different than the open threat it was portrayed to be in the international press. Moreover, the statement does nothing to increase any actual danger to Israel, despite the extreme reaction shown around the world.

Americans, Israelis and Europeans should take a deep breath and examine both the statement and Mr. Ahmadinejad’s position as Iran’s president. Once the complete context of these remarks is understood, the pronouncement can be seen for the puffery it is.

Westerners must understand that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not the first choice of the clerical establishment in Tehran in the Iranian Presidential Elections last summer. He raised uncomfortable questions about the clerics’ commitment to the ideals of the Revolution of 1978-79. Mr. Ahmadinejad was in step with the Iranian public with regard to the Revolutionary ideals concerning redistribution of income and attention to the needs of the lower economic sectors of the population, ("all politics is local"). These economic issues had increasingly been ignored by the clerics, who grew richer and richer to the chagrin of the Iranian man on the street. This is what propelled him into office.

Since then he has had an unusual amount of trouble establishing his credibility in government. Four of his choices for ministerial positions were rejected outright by the Iranian majles (parliament), and many of his other choices have been accepted over widespread criticism. Though personally religiously conservative, he has not been able to turn back the reformist trend that started with the election of President Mohammad Khatami.

So Mr. Ahmadinejad seems to have turned back to the populist base that elected him with another hoary old bit of revolutionary rhetoric—attacking the “Zionist regime.” He may have been expressing a personal conviction regarding Israel, but the international press did not report one important fact. His pronouncement was not his own. He was repeating the words of Ayatollah Khomeini from the time of the Revolution. Of course his agreement with them was implied. What was far more important than the condemnation of Israel was the fact that Mr. Ahmadinejad was tying himself specifically to the politics of 30 years ago. The statement was moreover made not out of the blue, but on an opportune occasion—the “Day of Jerusalem”—traditionally the last Friday in Ramazan, the month of fasting in Islam, which falls on Friday, October 28 this year.

It is not inconsequential that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statement is also is an indirect attack on the United States. This undoubtedly underscores Iran's ongoing unhappiness with U.S. and Israeli-led attacks on its nuclear energy development program, the one thing about which the Iranian people approve of their government's conduct.

The United States wasted no time capitalizing on Ahmadinejad's remarks in a kind of international “gotcha” moment. By tying them immediately to the nuclear development issue, the United States and Israel reinforced the widespread myth that Iran plans to drop an atomic bomb on Tel Aviv.

Contextualization aside, Mr. Ahmadinejad has miscalculated his own public support base. His rhetoric on Israel is both out of step with general public sensibility in Iran, and is seen precisely for what it is--empty posturing. Iran has little or no ability to affect the Israeli-Palestinian question directly, is not going to attack Israel itself, and is also not likely to sway other states in the region to change their current policies of increasing accommodation to the realities in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. His remarks have not pleased Iran’s mullahs either, though they do not dare repudiate them. Rumblings in Tehran about Mr. Ahmadinejad’s poor reception at the United Nations in September, and now the international brouhaha over this statement indicate that the clerical establishment wants to keep him on a short leash in the future. The United States must surely know this, but Washington is unable to refrain from rising to the bait.

It is also important to note that if these statements had not been made by an Iranian official, they might have been condemned, but they would not have gotten the extreme media attention that Mr. Ahmadinejad has received. It is notable that the former Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohammad expressed sentiments similar to those of Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2003 just before he stepped down from office (“Jews rule the world by proxy”) and his anti-Semitic remarks barely made a blip on the media radar.

William O. Beeman is Professor Middle East Anthropology at Brown University, and author of The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other (Praeger).