US, Iran Play with Fire

The recent in-your-face introduction by Columbia University president Lee Bollinger of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have delighted the US audience, but it has compounded America's image problem in the rest of the world.

Ahmadinejad is an unlovely character. His regime is descended from the Islamic revolution that toppled the Shah and flatly rejected many established diplomatic conventions and niceties. The searing images of American diplomats kidnapped and held hostage for several months is etched in many minds and still exerts a powerful pull on the American political psyche. Iran has also earned its reputation as a sponsor of international terrorism. Ahmadinejad has added to this legacy with fiery and intemperate threats against Israel, denials of the Holocaust, denunciations of the United States, challenges to UN authority, and rejections of international demands to end Iran's nuclear program.

Against this backdrop, there was a reasonable case against inviting him, just as there were good arguments in favor of the invitation. Similarly, it would have been possible for Bollinger to begin the Q&A session with tough questions without being uncivil. But to invite a foreign head of state and then subject him to such indignity breached all norms and courtesies of etiquette and highlighted Ahmadinejad's calmness and dignity in the face of offensive provocation. Absent such behavior, all attention would have focused on some of his bizarre statements. Instead, the event reminded much of the world of American hubris in believing it is entitled to set and define standards of civilization.

The occasion was also a reminder of the gap in worldviews on the collateral costs and consequences of the Iraq war. Its legacy includes diminished US credibility in highlighting an Iran threat, narrower policy options in responding to the nuclear challenge, and an Iran that is politically stronger in Iraq, richer due to rising oil prices, and more emboldened and motivated on national security.

Many people believe that facts and intelligence were twisted by Washington and London to fit a predetermined policy to go to war. With memories of that betrayal of trust on this most solemn of all governmental responsibilities, to choose war over diplomacy and negotiation, and in the context of escalating rhetoric over the threat to regional and world security posed by a nuclear Iran, Washington faces difficulty in proving to a skeptical world that it is not fabricating a crisis to justify war on Iran.

To say that Iran is the object of UN Security Council warnings and censure carries less weight in the court of world opinion because the veto-wielding United States is a permanent member of the United Nations, which is seen too often as a mere mouthpiece of the West.

Moreover, if the US president does not need a UN permission slip to defend America, cannot Ahmadinejad claim the same? There is a long history of Western interventions in Iran. Tehran received neither understanding, sympathy, nor support from the West as the victim of Iraqi aggression, including the use of chemical weapons.

Iraq was subjected to armed attack after having disarmed. The lesson to would-be proliferators with reasonable grounds for fearing a US attack is to raise the specter of defeat and the costs of victory by keeping, enlarging, and perhaps even nuclearizing their inventory of arms.

With nuclear neighbors to the west (Israel), north (Russia), and east (Pakistan, India, China), and large numbers of hostile US forces all around it, a prudent Iranian national security planner would recommend acceleration not abandonment of the nuclear program. In going to war against Iraq, a major argument was that in the international jungle, ineffectual international law cannot trump hard-nosed national security. Countries have to rely on their military might to avoid becoming the victims of others. Iran may have taken this lesson to heart.

The political cost of a military option against yet another Islamic country will be much higher because of Iraq. US troops there are operating far from home and in Iran's direct neighborhood. Meantime, the high price of oil, fueled by the Iraq war, has swelled Iran's coffers and strengthened its bargaining position against threats of international sanctions.

The fixation with a fictional threat from Saddam Hussein thus now handicaps US efforts to deal with a real threat from Iran. Will America ever learn?

Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary general, is a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

(c) Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company