The indispensable lunatic and the existential blind side

What would the world do without Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? While it may be pleasing to contemplate, the reality is that Iran’s leader has become the one nut job that many of the world’s other leaders can’t do without. Consider for a moment the following cases: Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent vision of himself turns on his role as ...

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

What would the world do without Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? While it may be pleasing to contemplate, the reality is that Iran's leader has become the one nut job that many of the world's other leaders can't do without.

Consider for a moment the following cases:

Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent vision of himself turns on his role as protector of Israel in the face of the existential threat posed by the Iranians. And while the Iranians have long been seen as posing such a threat, with a front man like Ahmadinejad who denies the Holocaust, defies international law when it comes to nuclear weapons development and regularly calls for the destruction of Israel, it makes Bibi's job that much easier. The Iranian religious elite, paradoxically, also must thank goodness for their country's president on a regular basis because he often makes them look thoughtful and reflective by comparison. The reality of course, is that many of them live further down toward the end of Insanity Lane than Ahmadinejad, but he is an ideal front man, a limit-tester who can take matters to the brink and then be dialed back when it suits the real regime, the clerical inner circle. The Iranian opposition, of course, is delighted to have a thug like Ahmadinejad in power -- at least for the moment. Because he is the kind of callous, brutal, crude politician that does more to stir up his enemies than he does to effectively unite his allies. He is a big part of the reason that thoughtful observers like the CFR's Richard Haass believe that regime change is actually a plausible alternative in Iran. (Although it is unclear who we would get after Ahmadinejad or whether they would actually change some of the policies that make the West most uncomfortable.) The Saudi leadership and others from throughout the Arab world have been worried about Iranian hegemony (or Iran's hegemonic aspirations) for years. But thanks to the little guy in the tan windbreaker, they are now increasingly gaining the support of the rest of the world in their efforts to isolate and contain the country. He is also giving those that seek it, a good excuse to cultivate their own nuclear weapons program. Hugo Chavez loves his BFF in Tehran because mere association with him makes Hugo seem larger and more dangerous than he really is. Talk of a "mysterious" daily flight from Caracas to Tehran is all the rage among the anti-Chavistas carrying with it the most sinister sort of implications. Will Venezuela go nuclear if Iran does? Is Venezuela a partner in a new kind of axis of crackpots that will work to be destabilizing in a variety of situations worldwide? By making people ask these questions, the five foot two Ahmadinejad is like a pair of elevator shoes for the five foot eight Chavez. The government of Brazil has also embraced Iran as a way of sending the message to the world that it is charting its own course, that it is not in the thrall of U.S. or Western views. It sends a message of solidarity with the new non-aligned without really having much impact except irritating the U.S. government (which is a plus in many political circles in Brazil). Lula hugs Ahmadinejad and says, we are a rising major power that will be quite different from the 20th century-variety of major powers. Is it a responsible stance? Not if it gives cover to dangerous Iranian programs or legitimizes repulsive Iranian policies... but Brazil now also gets to offer itself up as a channel to the bad guys, a useful middleman role that makes it relevant in two different worlds. Ahmadinejad also is helpful to the Russians and the Chinese. While both dither over sanctions, they also both remain close to Tehran in important ways -- from Russian security cooperation to Chinese dependency on Iran for 20 percent of its oil. The United States is distracted and bears a huge cost through the need to maintain militarily present in the region... and again, two rising powers get to send a mixed message that well suits their domestic and international objectives.

What would the world do without Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? While it may be pleasing to contemplate, the reality is that Iran’s leader has become the one nut job that many of the world’s other leaders can’t do without.

Consider for a moment the following cases:

  • Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent vision of himself turns on his role as protector of Israel in the face of the existential threat posed by the Iranians. And while the Iranians have long been seen as posing such a threat, with a front man like Ahmadinejad who denies the Holocaust, defies international law when it comes to nuclear weapons development and regularly calls for the destruction of Israel, it makes Bibi’s job that much easier.
  • The Iranian religious elite, paradoxically, also must thank goodness for their country’s president on a regular basis because he often makes them look thoughtful and reflective by comparison. The reality of course, is that many of them live further down toward the end of Insanity Lane than Ahmadinejad, but he is an ideal front man, a limit-tester who can take matters to the brink and then be dialed back when it suits the real regime, the clerical inner circle.
  • The Iranian opposition, of course, is delighted to have a thug like Ahmadinejad in power — at least for the moment. Because he is the kind of callous, brutal, crude politician that does more to stir up his enemies than he does to effectively unite his allies. He is a big part of the reason that thoughtful observers like the CFR’s Richard Haass believe that regime change is actually a plausible alternative in Iran. (Although it is unclear who we would get after Ahmadinejad or whether they would actually change some of the policies that make the West most uncomfortable.)
  • The Saudi leadership and others from throughout the Arab world have been worried about Iranian hegemony (or Iran’s hegemonic aspirations) for years. But thanks to the little guy in the tan windbreaker, they are now increasingly gaining the support of the rest of the world in their efforts to isolate and contain the country. He is also giving those that seek it, a good excuse to cultivate their own nuclear weapons program.
  • Hugo Chavez loves his BFF in Tehran because mere association with him makes Hugo seem larger and more dangerous than he really is. Talk of a "mysterious" daily flight from Caracas to Tehran is all the rage among the anti-Chavistas carrying with it the most sinister sort of implications. Will Venezuela go nuclear if Iran does? Is Venezuela a partner in a new kind of axis of crackpots that will work to be destabilizing in a variety of situations worldwide? By making people ask these questions, the five foot two Ahmadinejad is like a pair of elevator shoes for the five foot eight Chavez.
  • The government of Brazil has also embraced Iran as a way of sending the message to the world that it is charting its own course, that it is not in the thrall of U.S. or Western views. It sends a message of solidarity with the new non-aligned without really having much impact except irritating the U.S. government (which is a plus in many political circles in Brazil). Lula hugs Ahmadinejad and says, we are a rising major power that will be quite different from the 20th century-variety of major powers. Is it a responsible stance? Not if it gives cover to dangerous Iranian programs or legitimizes repulsive Iranian policies… but Brazil now also gets to offer itself up as a channel to the bad guys, a useful middleman role that makes it relevant in two different worlds.
  • Ahmadinejad also is helpful to the Russians and the Chinese. While both dither over sanctions, they also both remain close to Tehran in important ways — from Russian security cooperation to Chinese dependency on Iran for 20 percent of its oil. The United States is distracted and bears a huge cost through the need to maintain militarily present in the region… and again, two rising powers get to send a mixed message that well suits their domestic and international objectives.

While this list goes on, however, there is another dimension to the festering tensions with Iran over its nuclear program that may not, as of yet, be fully understood. This relates specifically to Netanyahu’s framing of Iran as an existential threat. It may be just that, but not in the way he was envisioning.

Because over the past several years, growing concerns over Iran and its nuclear program have come to trump most others in the Middle East proper. They have transcended in terms of the security threat involved those associated with either the Israeli-Palestinian issue or those associated, at least for now, with al Qaeda (thanks in part to defeats for al Qaeda like today’s killing of its leader in Iraq, and thanks in part to the fact that Iran seems to be, in the words of a former colleague of mine who was a career naval officer and Jack London fan, the wolf closest to the sled). Is a potentially nuclear Iran more dangerous than an unstable Pakistan? Probably not… but that’s like saying you have two forms of cancer. You want to treat both, but the one that is most threatening at the moment will dominate your attention.

The Israeli government has played up this threat for completely legitimate and understandable reasons. Getting Iran’s nuclear program just a little bit wrong might be minor for the world but a really big deal for Israel. However, having thus framed the issue, the Israelis have to live with the consequences… and the consequences are not what they intended.

Because if, as seems likely, the ultimate result of the Iranian nuclear program is (after "engagement" and sanctions ultimately prove ineffective, as seems likely) that we accept the idea of a nuclear Iran and revert to a strategy of containment, paradoxically Israel may move to be less central to U.S. interests in the region, trumped by the urgent need for a strong alliance with Arab states like Saudi, the UAE, Iraq, etc. designed to contain the new Iranian threat. Further, if we create a "nuclear umbrella" for the region, it is hard to imagine treaty or diplomatic language that did not, of necessity, promise to protect those states from all nuclear threats including those posed by Israel.

We’re already seeing signs that the risks of having to live with a nuclear Iran are sufficiently real that relations with anti-Iranian Arab states are becoming more and more central — and thus are likely to give those states an ever greater voice in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Hence all the buzz about seeking to set American terms for a peace, gain Arab support and then go to the Israelis and say, here’s the deal: You want to contain Iran, you need to give this serious consideration. 

Israel felt compelled to sell the Iranian threat. But their pitch really only would work if they persuaded the world to preempt that threat. If Iran got the bomb, then the geopolitics change, U.S. interests align more closely with those of some historic enemies of Israel, and a difficult relationship becomes even more complex. (And it’s not so good now. My bet is that if the Palestinians unilaterally declared independence tomorrow there would be two kinds of reaction worldwide: celebration and, perhaps in a few cases, effective silence. Another point the Israelis need to consider: in the 21st Century emerging powers that are less sympathetic to their case are playing an increasingly important role in shaping multilateral outcomes.)

Ahmadinejad may be the region’s indispensable lunatic, but if things keep trending in the current direction, he may ultimately be one that the Israelis could well have done without.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.