Two years ago this month, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the little-known mayor of Tehran, was inaugurated as president of Iran. Since then, his fiery rhetoric and combative style have provoked hyperbolic claims of Iranian peril from the Bush administration and its allies. The menacing Ahmadinejad is portrayed as pushing Iran in a bold new direction, developing nuclear weapons with plans to destroy Israel and evict America from the Middle East. Yet these dire assertions have only limited basis in reality. Halfway through his term, Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy is not all that different from his reformist or pragmatic predecessors.
Iran’s danger is nowhere more evident than its accelerating nuclear program. Neither America’s veiled threats of military retribution nor a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions seem to distract Iran from its nuclear course. While it is tempting to ascribe Tehran’s defiance to Ahmadinejad, Iran’s nuclear program began in earnest under former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatist acclaimed in the West as someone we can do business with. During the presidency of the reformist Mohammad Khatami, Iran did suspend its nuclear activities for more than two years in the hope of reaching an accommodation with the Europeans. Still, it was the same Khatami government that ended the suspension in 2005 and denounced further diplomatic efforts.
Had Ahmadinejad not been elected, Iran’s nuclear trajectory would not have been all that different. The desire to deter the United States and project power in the Middle East has pressed successive Iranian regimes toward the nuclear option.
And while Washington bitterly complains of Iran’s mischief and intervention in Iraqi politics, blame for Iran’s influence in Iraq rests not with Ahmadinejad but with an ill-advised American invasion that facilitated the rise of Shi’ite parties closely associated with Iran.
Tehran’s strategy is not necessary to export its Islamist revolution next door, but to promote Shi’ite allies who share its vision of the Middle East. Iran has sought to win over average Shi’ites with economic assistance, while its military aid is meant to ensure that the Shi’ite militias will have sufficient hardware to fight Sunni insurgents. This policy is hardly Ahmadinejad’s innovation.
What causes the greatest alarm in capitals around the world is Ahmadinejad’s persistent calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” Despite the disavowal of Iran’s diplomats, such incendiary rhetoric — frequently edging toward anti-Semitism — has been the mainstay of the theocratic regime’s discourse. However, such rhetoric conceals more than it reveals. Tehran does not seek eradication of Israel, but sees such slogans as a means of gaining the acclaim of the Arab street. It is the tragedy of the Middle East today that such despicable rhetoric is a pathway to political popularity.
Ahmadinejad’s presidency has, in fact, had a measurable impact on life in the Islamic Republic. An inordinately suspicious regime has been busy closing down nongovernmental organizations, suppressing civil-society groups, and arresting Iranian-Americans on spurious charges of espionage. Yet Iran’s core foreign policy objectives have not changed, despite the rise of Ahmadinejad and his paranoid style of politics.
Since 1989, the year the war with Iraq ended and revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died, pragmatic considerations have gradually displaced ideology as the basis of Iran’s international orientation. The reality remains that Iran’s quest for nuclear arms and assertion of influence over Iraq makes strategic sense, especially in light of Iran’s historic goal of regional preeminence.
Because Iran’s ambitions are based on rational calculation, the United States can deal with it through dialogue. Only when the perception of an unreasonable Ahmadinejad is removed from the scene can Washington begin the painstaking task of diplomacy.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.”
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