Critics have also cited his statements about the Holocaust or his hopes that the Israeli state will collapse. He has been depicted as a Hitler figure intent on killing Israeli Jews, even though he is not commander in chief of the Iranian armed forces, has never invaded any other country, denies he is an anti-Semite, has never called for any Israeli civilians to be killed, and allows Iran’s 20,000 Jews to have representation in Parliament.
There is, in fact, remarkably little substance to the debates now raging in the United States about Ahmadinejad. His quirky personality, penchant for outrageous one-liners, and combative populism are hardly serious concerns for foreign policy. Taking potshots at a bantam cock of a populist like Ahmadinejad is actually a way of expressing another, deeper anxiety: fear of Iran’s rising position as a regional power and its challenge to the American and Israeli status quo. The real reason his visit is controversial is that the American right has decided the United States needs to go to war against Iran. Ahmadinejad is therefore being configured as an enemy head of state.
The neoconservatives are even claiming that the United States has been at war with Iran since 1979. As Glenn Greenwald points out, this assertion is absurd. In the ’80s, the Reagan administration sold substantial numbers of arms to Iran. Some of those beating the war drums most loudly now, like think-tank rat Michael Ledeen, were middlemen in the Reagan administration’s unconstitutional weapons sales to Tehran. The sales would have been a form of treason if in fact the United States had been at war with Iran at that time, so Ledeen is apparently accusing himself of treason.
Ahmadinejad is being portrayed as an enemy head of state because, well, he’s an enemy head of state. It’s true that he’s not the head of government — the Supreme Leader and his council of ayatollahs are the chief policymakers — but he’s the public face of the country.
It’s technically true that he’s “never invaded any other country.” How could he given that the clerics control the military? But, again, he’s the public voice of the chief state sponsor of terrorism, a country supplying our enemies in Iraq with weapons used to kill Americans and supplying our enemies throughout the Middle East with weapons used to kill Jews.
Focusing our attention on Ahmadinejad as a somewhat sloppy shorthand for our troubles with Iran doesn’t pass scholarly muster. It’s close enough, however, for conducting the debate. After all, people debating American policies routinely focus on our president even though Congress, the Supreme Court, the fifty states, and even independent bodies like the Federal Reserve Board have a large hand in the process.
Pat Buchanan is a combative populist; Ahmadinejad is a powerful man stoking dangerous sentiments. That he denies being anti-Semitic is nice, I suppose, but somewhat obviated by his routine calls for their destruction.
The “at war since 1979” meme is indeed rather shopworn. Still, it’s undeniable that the accession of the theocrats to power and then their seizure of our embassy radically changed our relationship. That the Reagan Administration nonetheless made back door deals with the regime in an ill-fated attempt to secure the release of hostages is unfortunate but hardly evidence that our relations weren’t hostile; we made all manner of deals with the Soviets during the Cold War.
Are there people agitating for war with Iran? Sure. All indications thus far, though, point to the Bush Administration preferring a different path. Not only does virtually every expert on the subject agree that there is no viable military solution to their nuclear program, but almost every public utterance of Bush and his team dating back to the 2000 campaign pointed to optimism that regime change in Iran would happen peacefully and naturally.