Iran’s firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received the worst possible welcome in New York, yet he managed to walk away the winner. He should dedicate his victory to Lee Bollinger, the President of Columbia University whose infantile introduction of Ahmadinejad provided the Iranian hardliner with an undeserved opportunity to present himself as a defender of academic integrity and freedom of speech. As Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh commented: “I think it’s generally a good idea when you’re inviting people to your university not to tell them upon arrival that they’re not welcome, because then you look crazier than Ahmadinejad.”
Yet, the main point Ahmadinejad scored was the media’s willingness to let the limelight exaggerate his power and importance. For a few days, the media spoke of Ahmadinejad as if he actually determined Iran’s nuclear policy, as if he was in charge of the Iranian army and as if it was up to him whether Tehran would seek Israel’s destruction or not.
While the former Tehran mayor questioned the veracity of the Holocaust in New York, ordinary Iranians were glued to their TVs to watch a completely different drama – an Iranian series about the Holocaust, the suffering of the Jewish people and the heroic efforts of Iranian diplomats to help French Jews escape the Nazis by providing them with Iranian passports. The contrast with Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric could not have been any clearer. Apparently, the Iranian President even lacks the power to enforce his Holocaust theories on Iran’s state-run TV.
The contradiction between Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust rhetoric and the Iranian TV-drama exemplifies the dangers of the media’s infatuation with the Iranian hardliner – and all hardline statements coming out of Tehran. Not only does the unwarranted media attention make Ahmadinejad appear more powerful than he is, it also takes attention away from another side of Iran; one that doesn’t question the Holocaust, that understands the dangers of playing the anti-Israeli card to score points on the Arab streets and that is far more concerned about making friends with the US than making permanent enemies with the Jewish state.
Iran’s National Security Advisor Ali Larijani has carefully avoided echoing Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric. Iran’s Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki’s has denied that Iran seeks the destruction of Israel. Their posture is far less sensational than Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, yet much more indicative of Iran’s real policy.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Iran’s position on Israel isn’t ideologically driven. Though the ideological component of Iran’s foreign policy is undeniable, it is secondary to Iran’s geostrategic considerations.
Ideology and Geopolitics
Throughout the existence of the Islamic Republic, the Iranian theocracy has adopted a harsh, provocative and uncompromising rhetoric on Israel to boost Iran’s credentials as a leader of an imaginary Islamic bloc and use the anti-Israeli card to bridge Iran’s difficulties with the Arab states.
But the rhetoric has only been translated into actual policy when Tehran deemed that its ideological and strategic imperatives coincided. When these two pillars of Iran’s foreign policy have clashed – as they did in the 1980s during the Iraq-Iran war when Tehran quietly sought Israel’s aid and the Jewish state made many efforts to get Iran and the US back on talking terms – Iran’s geostrategic concerns have consistently prevailed over its ideological impulses.
Today, Tehran believes that its ideological and strategic imperatives coincide in regards to the Jewish state. On a strategic level, Iran opposes Israel due to a perception that the Jewish state seeks Iran’s prolonged isolation and exclusion from regional affairs. Whether in Washington or in Ashkhabad, Iran perceives Israel to be countering its interest. On an ideological level, the Islamic Republic’s pretense to leadership in the Islamic world compels it to pursue a line that often times make Iran more Palestinian than the Palestinians.
The key to changing Iran’s behavior vis-à-vis the Jewish state lay in the dynamics between ideology and geopolitics. If these two forces of Iranian foreign policy once again can be arranged to counter each other, the force behind Iran’s belligerence against Israel can be put to rest.
This, however, cannot be achieved solely by increasing pressure or by making threats of war. Only through a larger US-Iran accommodation can Iran’s foreign policy impulses shift away from its current stance on Israel.
To explore this strategic opportunity, Israel must first adopt a more sober analysis of Iran; one in which it sees through Iran’s deliberately misleading hyperbole and pays attention not only to the dangerous rhetoric but also to the less sensationalist voices in the Iranian government. Iran’s pragmatists may not be friendly towards the Jewish state, but neither are they apocalyptic. By only focusing on the most extreme and radical notions coming out of Tehran, we let the radicals win. And their victory is a loss for all.
Dr. Trita Parsi is President of National Iranian American Council and the author of the new book ‘Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US’ (Yale University Press)