Whatever you think of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he is not a stupid man. On the contrary, and shocking as you might find this idea, he is a better strategist than his American counterpart, Barack Obama. Of course, Ahmadinejad has fewer issues to deal with than the U.S. president, but on the ones that count for him he’s capable of running rings around Obama.
The main theme of Ahmadinejad’s speech at the 2010 Review Conference by countries which have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is to outflank Obama’s calls for getting rid of nuclear weapons, trying to repeat the success Iran had last September in getting sanctions postponed. At the time, Iran proposed a plan for giving up nuclear materials for reprocessing elsewhere. Once the sanctions’ momentum had been derailed, however, Iran made it clear that it had no intention of agreeing to anything like that.
Now Ahmadinejad has held his own international nuclear summit under the slogan, “Nuclear Power for All, Nuclear Weapons for None.” His speech sounded word for word like what an idealistic pacifist would say: nuclear weapons are bad; ban them now.
Nuclear weapons, Ahmadinejad explained, don’t bring real security and producing or possessing them, “under whatever pretext” it is done, “is a very dangerous act which first and foremost makes the country” having them exposed to threats or attacks. He even stated:
“The possession of nuclear bombs is not a source of pride; it is rather disgusting and shameful. And even more shameful is the threat to use or to use such weapons” which is a great crime. He accused the United States, an unnamed European country (France), and Israel of having done so.
The entire system of non-proliferation as it currently exists, said Ahmadinejad, is just an oppressive sham in which those who possess these weapons try to keep others from getting them in order to maintain their own supremacy. Those in control of the international system also, he continued, want to use nuclear arms as an excuse to get others from obtaining nuclear energy, “the cleanest and cheapest” source of power.
Indeed, the U.S. government “has always tried to divert the public opinion’s attention from its noncompliance [with international law] and unlawful actions by bringing into focus some misleading issues,” such as Iran getting nuclear weapons or giving them to terrorists.
Ahmadinejad’s solution is a new international group to police nuclear weapons. This would include “immediate termination of all types of research, development, or improvement of nuclear weapons and their related facilities” and dismantling all U.S. nuclear weapons everywhere.
Oh, yes, and he calls for reforming the UN Security Council to get rid of a veto or permanent membership for the United States and others.
At the end, Ahmadinejad invited Obama “to join this humane movement, if he is still committed to his motto of `change.’”
What is all this about?
First, Ahmadinejad is offering to agree to Obama’s basic proposal of eliminating nuclear weapons, in effect, calling the president’s bluff. Obviously, this isn’t going to work at this stage on Obama. But Ahmadinejad is not trying to persuade the United States, but rather a range of Third World countries that might well oppose sanctions, including Lebanon, which is on the Security Council, Turkey, and Brazil.
He is also trying to buy even more time for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
There is also, and this is extraordinarily important, a longer-term aspect of Iranian strategy which I call creating a defensive umbrella for aggression. This might become the most vital gambit of the new era coming to the Middle East when Iran gets nuclear weapons.
Most discussion in the West has focused on Iran using nuclear weapons or threatening to do so. Yet that is not the main issue. Instead, Iran could genuinely be developing these arms in order to defend itself. The problem is that this defense is coupled with an aggressive policy.
In this framework, Iran would continue and escalate its subversive efforts against its neighbors; consolidate and increase its influence in Lebanon and Iraq; support Hamas and client forces in Afghanistan; press regional states toward appeasement; recruit many more people to revolutionary Islamist groups; and try to make Iran the hegemonic power in the region.
But when anyone thinks about opposing Iran, all Tehran need do is make a gentle reminder that it has nuclear arms and so they better be careful. Arabs in the region, especially the Gulf, don’t have to believe that Iran would win a nuclear exchange with the United States. After all, even if Tehran lost they know their own countries would be devastated. Better to avoid any chance of a nuclear war than to offend Iran.
The other element — as so often in the Middle East — is who the local rulers would most fear. How can the Obama administration, which has criticized past U.S. use of force and decisive leadership, persuade Iran to tremble in fear and Arabs to stand tall feeling securely protected? Of course, the Arabs will accept American security guarantees but they would then be far more likely to bow to Iranian demands than to U.S. requests.
Moreover, in the current administration concept of containing Iran, the United States would have to do precisely what Ahmadinejad wants to outlaw: threaten Iran with nuclear retaliation.
So this apparently pacifist-style, peacenik stance fits into Ahmadinejad’s strategy. In opening his speech, Ahmadinejad called upon the deity to “hasten the arrival” of the Shia Muslim messiah. For Iran, nuclear weapons may well provide the umbrella for them to seek the regime’s strategy of regional rule by merely existing as a threat.