I've gotten a torrent of e-mail in response to a column called "My dinner with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."
Much of it questioned why I would attend a meal with a "thug" who said Israel should be "wiped off the map." Others denounced as naive or worse my point that the Iranian president wasn't powerful enough to be a Hitler.
Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric and Tehran's nuclear program clearly arouse such passions that I want to respond to some issues raised by my readers. Here goes.
First, the question of whether a journalist should attend a meeting with a repugnant foreign leader. Is this morally obtuse? Does it signify an endorsement of this leader's policies?
Of course not.
As I asked one reader: "Do you really think journalists should never go near heads of state who are repulsive? Is that the best way to keep the country informed?"
I understand the revulsion many feel at the ugly rhetoric of Ahmadinejad - who said that Israel's continued existence was an "insult to human dignity." The Iranian leader wants to provoke, and is trying to ride his anti-Western, anti-Israel tirades to a leadership role in the Muslim world. He wants the West to believe he is powerful and it is weak.
All the more reason for journalists to assess for themselves what realities lie beneath the bluster. That is the responsibility of a free press. Nowhere is it more important than in the case of such a controversial leader - whose country is the focus of a key U.S. policy debate.
So of course I accepted an invitation that allowed me to assess Ahmadinejad in person. It happened to be a dinner - which seemed to make some readers especially angry - but the point was to ask questions and hear the responses. Several top journalists attended the meal, and CNN, "60 Minutes" and Charlie Rose did their own interviews with the Iranian president. Many more journalists attended a National Press Club video hook-up in Washington with Ahmadinejad in New York. All were doing their job.
Did that coverage boost the Iranian leader's credibility in the United States? Not at all.
Other readers criticized me for dining "with a terrorist ... responsible for the deaths of American troops in Iraq." Yet deaths from roadside bombs with supposed Iranian links are only a fraction of overall U.S. casualties. Most are the work of Sunni insurgents who get financial aid from within Sunni Arab states or who cross over from Syria.
So Iran's role in Iraq is not a reason to avoid interviewing leaders from Tehran.
But what really angered many readers was when I wrote that the Iranian didn't have the power of a Hitler. "Same thing Chamberlain thought," one wrote. "Ahmadinejad is like Hitler because he wants to eliminate the Jews," wrote another. A third wrote: "No, he is not now Hitler (but) if Iran develops the bomb ... it will have more firepower than Nazi Germany had in World War II."
This is an important issue because of the implication - if Ahmadinejad is, or is becoming, a Hitler - that America should attack him. I stand by my point, but let me explain further what I mean.
Ahmadinejad may echo Hitlerian rhetoric when it comes to Israel, but Iran is not Germany. Iran is a third world country without a heavy industrial base. Despite its oil and gas, it has to import and ration gasoline because it lacks refineries, and Western sanctions keep out the foreign investment to build them. This is not a country that can build up a German-style military machine, let alone one with global reach.
Dominance only a dream
Ahmadinejad may dream of regional dominance, but he has an insurmountable problem. Iran is a Persian Shiite nation: The Shiite sect makes up only a small fraction of the world's Muslim population, and mainstream Sunnis often disdain Shiites. Sunni Arabs may thrill to the Iranian's anti-Israel rhetoric - and Iran can meddle in the politics of Syria and Lebanon and Gaza. But Arab countries will not follow a Shiite Persian's lead.
What's more, Ahmadinejad isn't the top leader in his own country, which is ruled by a supreme cleric, Ayatollah Khamenei. Control of foreign and military policy rests with Khamenei and fellow clerics. These religious figures control vast economic wealth and - say most Iran experts - aren't likely to commit suicide by attacking Israel.
Moreover, the Iranian president's popularity inside his own country is sinking. Most of my e-mailers didn't know that Iran's president - unlike the supreme cleric - is elected, and that these elections, although not entirely free, produce big surprises. The Iranian leader and his predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, were unexpected victors in elections. Ahmadinejad won because he promised to use oil money to benefit the poor, and he hasn't delivered. Many Iran experts believe he will lose in 2009.
None of this is to deny that Ahmadinejad is a very disturbing figure; the West should indeed try to preclude an Iranian bomb. But the Iranian president is not in position to dominate the world or the Middle East - and is under challenge in his own country. To equate him with Hitler overinflates his position - and his potential. It also promotes a strategy - a military attack on Iran - which would harm U.S. interests more than help.
Such a strike would boost Ahmadinejad's dropping popularity at home while not destroying Iran's nuclear program. It would destabilize the Gulf, send oil prices skyrocketing and undercut any hopes for stabilizing Iraq. These are big reasons most of the Pentagon brass along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly oppose a strike.
Al-Qaida is real threat
Calling Ahmadinejad Hitler implies that Shiite Iran is America's top security threat. It isn't. As a recent National Intelligence Estimate pointed out in July, the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland is the Sunni Islamist group, al-Qaida. And al-Qaida's leaders and training camps are based in Pakistan, not Iran.
So despite his outrageous rhetoric toward Israel and beyond, it serves little purpose to conflate Ahmadinejad with Hitler. In these times, clear thinking is needed to confront radical Islam.