Iran’s President Is Off the Rails

Iran's President Is Off the Rails
By Suzanne Nossel

With all eyes on an  Iraq and an executive branch both out of control, Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not so quietly emerged as about as frightening a rogue state as can be imagined. Iran has long kept us up at night as a proliferator, a terrorist haven, a theocracy, and a regime hostile to the United States.

Ahmadinejad has added to that dangerous brew a streak of what appears to be meglomaniacal paranoia coupled with unfettered nationalism and utter disregard for what the rest of the world thinks. If this streak continues, Ahmadinejad may given North Korea ‘s Kim Jong Il a run for his money for the world’s weirdest and most dangerous despot. The evidence:

Though in the midst of sensitive negotiations with the Europeans on the future of Iraq’s nuclear programs, Ahmadinejad this week announced plans to resume research on nuclear fuels starting tomorrow, a key step toward building nuclear potential and a flagrant violation of a 2004 accord with the EU.

On Thursday, a high-ranking Iranian delegation stood up IAEA Chairman and Nobel Prize Winner Mohamed El Baradei, rebuffing the nuclear watchdog’s effort to glean more information about Tehran’s nuclear plans.

Ahmadinejad has made a series of noxious anti-Semitic public statements, saying that     Israel should be wiped from the map and that the Holocaust was myth. Harsh reproach from the US, Europe, the Pope and     Kofi Annan has only egged him on.

Back home, Ahmadinejad has rhapsodized about the imminent return of the twelfth imam, a messianic figure who will rise only once sufficient chaos is created in the world.

Bottom line: Ahmadinejad appears to be off the rails and bent on expanding Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Meanwhile, the results of December’s Iraqi election could heighten his influence there as well.

All of this underscores the gravity of the defeat of reform-minded Iraqis who fought against Ahmadinejad in last year’s Iraqi election.

The real question is what to do next. To date, Russia and China have blocked forceful action on Iran’s nuclear program within the IAEA and the UN Security Council. Both countries have deep economic ties to Iran and dependency on its oil which they don’t want to see disrupted (see the note here on the rise of energy-driven geopolitics).

Despite the hurdles, the Administration is again pushing for a UN referral for Iraq’s program, one that would lead to the imposition of sanctions. Rising Russian frustration with Ahmadinejad could potentially override Moscow’s opposition to action. But even if China and Russia were to somehow agree to forego Iranian oil, given the continued chaos in Iraq and volatility in oil markets, the prospect of higher global prices due to a cut in supply cannot be attractive for the Administration.

One alternative that may have some potential include a sports boycott that would exclude soccer-crazed Iran from the World Cup, akin to what was done for apartheid South Africa and Milosevic’s Serbia.

If that doesn’t work (and its unlikely to work quickly), then what? It’s tough to imagine the Administration commencing a bombing campaign against Iran when we remain so deeply mired in Iraq. Allowing Iran’s "research" activities to proceed unfettered would undercut what President Bush has claimed as the raison d’etre of his Administration: confronting threats and forces of evil.

A scenario in which it’s de facto impossible for the US to pursue what the world would likely view as the legitimate use of force in response to WMD in the hands of a rogue Middle Eastern regime precisely because of our prior illegitimate use of force for the same purported goal is not out of the question. Iraq just might wind up tying our hands in the real battle we may face over nukes in Iran.