Obama and Ahmadinejad: Rhetoric at the UNGAPosted: 26/09/2012
By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs
To my eyes, President Obama’s red line looks quite … red.
In front of the UN General Assembly yesterday, the president said the following:
And make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
This is not new from the US President; last spring he started explicitly rejecting the idea that the United States could rely on a regime of containment against an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. I’m not sure it is correct that a nuclear-armed Iran couldn’t be contained, but it is pretty clearly the policy of the United States not to take the chance.
It is notable however, that – as Peter Beinart observed in The Daily Beast yesterday – Obama at the same time ‘has gone on the political offensive’ against the more impatiently hawkish demands of both Israel’s prime minister and US Republicans. ‘It started just over a week ago when Benjamin Netanyahu took a swipe at Hillary Clinton and tried to pressure Obama into setting a deadline for military action,’ Beinart wrote.
Rather than lay low against charges of appeasing Iran, Obama strongly criticised the drumbeat for military action, targeting Mitt Romney in particular. ‘If Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war,’ said the President in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast Sunday, ‘he should say so’. Beinart is particularly happy about this because, he thinks,
the more Obama defends the possibilities for diplomacy and the more he accuses Romney of rushing to war, the more freedom of maneuver he’ll enjoy in his second term. It’s not clear that Tehran’s leaders will ever cut a deal to curb their nuclear ambitions … But for diplomacy to stand any chance, Obama will have to risk a confrontation with Netanyahu and the Republicans in Washington, both of whom will likely oppose any agreement Obama could plausibly reach. The more Obama can argue that he made Iran an issue in the campaign, the more he’ll be able to claim a mandate for diplomacy and the harder it will be for hawks in Washington and Jerusalem to block him.
I would add that the clarity of this real red line – no weaponization, as reiterated Tuesday in New York – could also give a second-term Obama administration greater scope for negotiating, or least managing, a situation of some ambiguity in which Iran retains and continues to develop a latent nuclear capability. Under such circumstances, another Middle East war could be avoided. This does also depend, of course, on Iran’s leadership not pushing its luck. It doesn’t seem plausible that Tehran would launch a suicidal nuclear attack on Israel even if it had the means to do so, and it really is true that the clerical regime has demonstrated pragmatism when its own survival was at stake – as argued in my book, The Sixth Crisis: Iran, Israel, America, and the Rumors of War.
Incendiary rhetoric creates its own dangerous dynamic, however, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s own visit to the UN this week has produced some new evidence of his rhetorical recklessness. He started off in a breakfast meeting with journalists by denying that Israelis had any historical ‘roots’ in the Middle East, an assertion that was problematic not least because it was false. His speech to the UN General assembly turned out to be rather milder than previous versions. But developing nuclear weapons-related technology while denying Israel’s legitimacy as a state and sovereign member of the United Nations is a recipe for war, whether intended or not.
On Monday I attended one of a couple of meetings between Ahmadinejad and US journalists and foreign policy analysts. In this meeting as well, his language was fairly sober and subdued. There was however, at least one moment of rather chilling mutual non-comprehension between Iran’s President and the Americans. He was asked whether, since he had expressed hope for better relations with the US, Iran might accept the legitimacy and the right to peace and security on the part of Israel. This is how Ahmadinejad responded:
Concerning the Zionist regime, we do not respect its legitimacy. What does this have to do with our relationship with the United States? We recognise the legitimacy of the United States. Outside the parameters of this issue, the relationship with the US can be a good one.
This is Ahmadinejad’s last visit to New York as Iran’s president; his second and final term ends next June. It is to be hoped that his successor will have at least some greater savvy about the realities of international and American politics, and American alliance relationships. Iran is in something of a hole, and its leadership might stop digging.
This post has been updated.