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Archive for Friday, December 22, 2006

Iranian leader needs forceful diplomacy

December 22, 2006

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In life, an obstreperous child requires attention, whether that comes in the form of punishment, constructive engagement or the usually pointless belief that the offensive behavior will correct itself.

On the global stage, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is such a creature. Relatively new to his position, insecure despite his bravado, worried about the fate of the tired revolution that spawned him, mindful of widespread public dissatisfaction in Iran and eager to gain recognition from any direction, he tries one antic after another.

His latest display of ludicrous oddity, last week's conference in Tehran that I will not dignify with its official name, was nothing more than a gathering of Holocaust-deniers who celebrated incivility, irresponsibility and ignorance.

To some critics, Ahmadinejad's shameless bid to assemble such a hate-fest provided yet another reason to shun him and his regime.

To others, it was an opportunity for a much-bigger assembly - the community of civilized nations - to set the record straight. Fortunately, many loudly did.

To still others, it was the last straw, a blatant invitation to rid the world of Ahmadinejad and his cronies by any means. I would like nothing better than for him to realize such a fate - but at the hands of the long-suffering Iranians, not as a result of a foreign military intervention.

It was at best hypocritical for Ahmadinejad to have talked about freedom of expression at the Holocaust-deniers' ball. Under his rule, Iran has witnessed eroding political and civil liberties. Ahmadinejad's own election stands as a monument to corruption, manipulation and anti-democratic practices. At present, it is essentially impossible for Iranians to change their government democratically.

Even the prospect of a people-power-driven regime change that appeared so promising a few years ago has diminished. Iranian hardliners are marching in lockstep today, appearing more fearsome than ever. Where they fail to intimidate, they stir up nationalistic impulses to strengthen their position, even if that means venturing out on a dangerous, nuclear-weapons-research limb, or resorting to revisionist history.

Still, the gimmicks fail to fool most Iranians. They may be willing to indulge their president's public tantrums for now, but his behavior does not enhance the average person's prospects, economic or otherwise. I remain convinced that the Iranians eventually will rise against him.

As that possibility marinates, the United States and its allies should proceed with a combination of forcefulness and diplomacy. Tehran knows that the global community cannot allow it to pursue nuclear-research programs without transparency. Perhaps Ahmadinejad will push the discussion to the brink, as is his predisposition, then agree to full international inspections.

If not, there will be no choice except to impose the sanctions that Iran decries. A bit of punishment might nudge the truculent Ahmadinejad toward playing nicer.

How would sanctions resonate in the context of the Iraq Study Group's recommendation to reach out to Iran and others to assist in stabilizing Iraq as part of a comprehensive fix for the Middle East?

At first glance, not at all. But, recalling Ahmadinejad's desire for any kind of attention, he could conceivably separate the nuclear and stabilization discussions and find the latter intriguing. Although he personally would obtain some short-term benefits, the broader significance for the Iranian people would be that the world wishes to engage them - despite their president.

There is no point in hoping that Ahmadinejad's disruptive ways will disappear. But a combination of constructive engagement and appropriate punishment might prove useful in tempering his actions - at least until Iranians muster the will to end his ugly romp with a permanent time-out.

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