IF YOU THINK IRANIAN PRESIDENT Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes outlandish comments, consider what Mao Tse-tung said to a visiting head of state in 1954: "If someone else can drop an atomic bomb, then I can too. The death of 10 or 20 million people is nothing to be afraid of."
Nonetheless, 15 years later, a nuclear-armed China was not only contained by the world, it opted for normalization of relations with its archenemy, the United States. Today, it is fashionable to equate Ahmadinejad with Hitler, yet the lesson of the 20th century is that rash leaders can, in fact, be deterred. And Iran's president will prove no exception.
Remember that Ahmadinejad's comments are not even unique in the context of Iranian discourse. In 2001, the former Iranian president and putative moderate, Hashemi Rafsanjani, declared that although Israel would be destroyed by an atomic bomb, the Islamic world would only be damaged by one and therefore "such a scenario is not inconceivable." Nevertheless, four years later, when Rafsanjani was running for president, Washington and its European allies were eagerly hoping that he would win.
Ahmadinejad is considered nutty in the United States because of his denial of the Holocaust — but that's nothing new in the Islamic Republic either. The foremost ruler of the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has declared: "There are documents showing close collaboration of Zionists with Nazi Germany, and exaggerated numbers relating to the Jewish Holocaust were fabricated to lay the groundwork for the occupation of Palestine and to justify the atrocities of the Zionists." Yet today, it is quietly hoped in Washington that Khamenei will be the one to restrain the intemperate Ahmadinejad.
All this suggests that in dealing with Iran, American officials have historically discounted its bluster and paid attention to its actual conduct. And they were right to do so. Khamenei and Rafsanjani, despite their irresponsible assertions and pernicious support for a variety of terrorist organizations, have pursued a relatively pragmatic foreign policy that has sought to eschew direct confrontation with the U.S. and Israel.
Ahmadinejad's behavior suggests continuity with his predecessors: incendiary rhetoric and restrained conduct.
The fact is that today, unlike the 1980s, Iran is not challenging the legitimacy of the region's political order or calling for the overthrow of regimes in places such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Tehran's support for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas is not an Ahmadinejad innovation but a long-standing Iranian policy.
To be sure, Iran is intervening in Iraq and arming various Shiite militias — but such conduct is designed not to export Iran's model of governance but to prevent the rise of a state dominated by Sunni elites whose pan-Arab aspirations have in the past led to tense relations, and even war, with Iran. Tehran has no delusions that the Shiites of Iraq will subordinate their communal interest to Iran's national ambitions, but it does hope that a Shiite-dominated regime will provide it with a suitable interlocutor.
Even the nuclear issue has to be viewed in the context of continuity rather than change. The decision to resume the nuclear program after a long period of suspension was taken not by Ahmadinejad but by the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami before leaving office in 2005. What's more, Iran's pursuit of the bomb has less to do with the destruction of Israel than with deterring a United States that has invaded two states that border Iran in the last five years. This is a moment of heightened tension between the U.S. and Iran, with the Bush administration routinely calling for a change of regime in Tehran, so perhaps it's not so surprising that the Islamic Republic feels it requires a deterrent capability to ensure both regime survival and territorial integrity.
So then, why has Ahmadinejad persisted in his contemptible denials of the Holocaust and his repeated calls for the eradication of Israel if, in fact, they are more bluster than anything else? As a cagey politician, Ahmadinejad appreciates that his incendiary denunciations actually enhance his popularity in the Middle East. The carnage in Iraq, the failure to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab rulers' inability to stand up to Washington have generated a popular clamor for a politician willing to defy the U.S. and Israel.
Ahmadinejad has taken on that role, successfully capturing the imagination of a region prone to rely on conspiracies to explain its predicament. In this context, his persistent religious exhortations are designed not to prepare the path for the return of the Hidden Imam — the Messiah-like figure of Shiite Islam who some believe will reappear in a period of global war, chaos and bloodshed — but to advance himself and the cause of Iranian influence.
It is a peculiar American fascination to continually look for the next Hitler. Josef Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and even Saddam Hussein were all touted at one time or another as Hitler incarnate. Ahmadinejad is simply the latest figure to be contemplated for that role. Evidently, many in Washington simply cannot grasp the fact that Hitler was a uniquely evil politician and that he is in fact dead. The United States — the country that won the Cold War and contained its adversaries — should be able to deter a second-rate power with an intemperate leader.