Get past extreme rhetoric and sit down at table with Iran
The president of Iran gave controversial speeches in the United States at Columbia University and the U.N. General Assembly.
EVEN after trying to tone down his bombastic rhetoric, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes across as less than inviting as a participant in diplomacy. At some point, however, U.S. diplomats should grit their teeth and deal with a country that is vitally important toward achieving stability in the Persian Gulf.
In speeches Monday at Columbia University and yesterday at the United Nations, Ahmadinejad tried hard to show that he was not the "petty and cruel dictator" as he was introduced by the university's president. He did not succeed, although he reversed earlier statements in his attempt.
Two years ago, after his election, Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust "a myth" and said Israel should be "wiped off the map." At Columbia, he acknowledged, "Granted, this (the Holocaust) happened," and said he favored a Palestinian referendum to determine Israel's future.
But then, he asked of 9/11, "Why did this happen? What caused it? What conditions led to it? Who truly was involved? Who was really involved and put it all together?" Does he really not know, or is he implying that America was somehow responsible for propelling al-Qaida into action?
Ahmadinejad is president of a country that has emerged as a regional power, but he is neither dictator nor head of state. The person who holds that position in the Islamic republic is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. The government includes a pragmatic element that seeks to bring the country out of isolation.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced in May 2006 that the United States would be willing to take part in multinational talks with Iran if it suspended its nuclear-enrichment program. In December, the Iraq Study Group headed by James A. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton called for such talks "without preconditions."
Iran, like the United States, desires stability in Iraq. The Islamic republic stands to benefit from an end to the conflict within the borders of its neighbor. A Baghdad government is likely to be led by the majority Shiites, who will be aligned with Iran. Instead of calling for regime change in Tehran, the United States should move toward providing incentives, such as phasing out sanctions, in seeking transparency of Iran's nuclear program. As Iran is able to provide a more useful role in the stabilization of Iraq, American troops become closer to departure.
While Ahmadinejad's past remarks about Israel are offensive, Iran's policy can be moderated through international pressure, as shown in the past. Iran abruptly stopped targeting dissidents in exile in Europe in the late 1990s after the conviction of Iranian agents for murdering Kurdish leaders in Berlin led to withdrawal of European emissaries from Tehran. Iran also stopped supporting radical elements in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to normalize relations with those countries.