Ahmadinejad’s Gauntlet

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 24/09/06):

The most telling moment in a conversation here last week with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came when he was asked if America would attack Iran. He quickly answered “no,” with a slight cock of his head as if he regarded the very idea of war between the two countries as preposterous.

Ahmadinejad’s confidence was the overriding theme of his visit. He was like a picador, deftly sticking darts into a wounded bull. As he moved from event to event — TV and print interviews, a chat with the august Council on Foreign Relations, his lecture to the U.N. General Assembly — he displayed the same flinty composure. It sometimes seemed as if he owned New York, dispensing his radical bromides like a tidy, compact version of Fidel Castro. Underlying his performance, I sensed the same certainty that was expressed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back when this confrontation began in the late 1970s: “America cannot do a damn thing.”

Over the course of a week’s time, I had an unusual chance to sit with both President Bush and President Ahmadinejad and hear their thoughts about Iran. The contrasts were striking: Bush is groping for answers to the Iran problem; you sense him struggling for a viable strategy. When I asked what message he wanted to send the Iranian people, Bush seemed eager for more contact: He spoke of Iran’s importance, of its great history and culture, of its legitimate rights. He made similar comments in his speech Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly.

Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, is sitting back and enjoying the attention. He’s not groping for anything; he’s waiting for the world to come to him. When you boil down his comments, the message is similar to Bush’s: Iran wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse; Iran wants dialogue; Iran wants more cultural exchanges. At one point, Ahmadinejad even said that “under fair conditions,” he would favor a resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States.

But if the words of accommodation are there, the music is not. Instead of sending a message to the administration that he is serious about negotiations, Ahmadinejad spent the week playing to the gallery of Third World activists and Muslim revolutionaries with his comments about Israel and the Holocaust. This audience hears the defiant message between the lines: America cannot do a damn thing.

Ahmadinejad is the calmest revolutionary I’ve ever seen. Sitting in a plush easy chair in his suite at the InterContinental hotel, he barely moves a muscle as he makes the most radical statements. His feet don’t jiggle, his hands don’t make gestures, his facial expression barely changes. His eyes are the most expressive part of his body — sparkling one moment, glowering the next, focusing down to dark points when he is angry.

An interview with Ahmadinejad is an intellectual ping-pong match. He bounces back each question with one of his own: Ask about Hezbollah’s attacks, and he asks about Israel’s attacks. Question his defiance of the United Nations, and he shifts to America’s defiance of the world body. In more than an hour of conversation with me and Lally Weymouth of Newsweek, he didn’t deviate from his script. Indeed, some of his comments in the interview were repeated almost word for word when he addressed the General Assembly a few hours later. This is a man adept at message control.

The common strand I take away from this week of Iranian-American conversation is that the two countries agree on one central fact: Iran is a powerful nation that should play an important role in the international system. Bush put it to me this way: “I would say to the Iranian people: We respect your history. We respect your culture. . . . I recognize the importance of your sovereignty.” Here was Ahmadinejad’s formulation, when I asked how Iran could help stabilize Iraq: “A powerful Iran will benefit the region because Iran is a country with a deep culture and has always been a peaceful country.”

That’s the challenge: Can America and Iran find a formula that will meet each side’s security interests, and thereby allow Iran to return fully to the community of nations after 27 years? Iran can’t achieve its ambitions as a rising power without an accommodation with America. America can’t achieve its interest in stabilizing the Middle East without help from Iran. The potential for war is there, but so is the bedrock of mutual self-interest. The simple fact is that these two countries need each other.