The high political theater surrounding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York this week triggered plenty of protests, headlines and debates. But it remains unclear if, even after all the exertions this week, the international community has inched any closer to resolving the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad’s Jewish critics gathered Monday in the thousands across from the United Nations, portraying the Iranian leader as the heir to Adolph Hitler and the quintessence of evil.
“You are being heard around the world today,” former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke told the anti-Ahmadinejad rally. “You’re not wasting your time by being here today. Ahmadinejad is losing the PR battle.”
For his part, Ahmadinejad parried by accepting an invitation from Columbia University, where he presented himself as a reasonable democrat and academic willing to engage in dialogue and face sharp questioning from students. The Iranian leader may have not won many admirers this week, particularly with remarks like the one denying Iran had any homosexuals, but he dominated the opening of the U.N. General Assembly and did not appear to lose any significant ground on the world stage.
Members of the U.N. Security Council remain as divided as ever, with China and Russia resisting American and French calls for more stringent sanctions on the Islamic Republic. A further rift has also opened up within Europe, with Germany openly opposing France’s desire to see Europe impose separate sanctions if the Security Council effort fails.
In the end, Ahmadinejad’s provocations, and his critics’ tremendous show of force at Columbia and the United Nations, may help break the impasse — or at the very least strengthen the American case for further sanctions. But on the more important question — whether sanctions can succeed preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon — the experts are skeptical.
Trita Parsi, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States,” says that sanctions have been in place against Iran for more than two decades and have only succeeded in making the country stronger.
“We should set aside these notions and try to focus on what’s going to work. And what hasn’t worked for 20 years is sanctions,” Parsi said.
Critics argue that American policy has been overly obsessed with sanctions, rather than with changing Iran’s behavior. For that, the United States would need to offer carrots as well as sticks.
“Sanctions are not just there for their own sake,” said Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia. Sick claims that sanctions have been useful, particularly in pressing Iran to reach an agreement on outstanding issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency, as it did last month. In that, he agrees with Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who told JTA that sanctions have placed Ahmadinejad under mounting pressure and now the international community should tighten the screws.
Hoenlein said that he truly believes effective sanctions could obviate the need for war. But Sick and Parsi agree that ultimately, if the United States genuinely wants Iran to change course, American officials will have to negotiate with Iran and offer it incentives.
“Up until now we have never put an offer on the table to Iran,” Sick said. “We’re not using sanctions to accomplish anything. If you want to actually change Iran’s behavior, you’re not going to do that by putting on more sanctions.”
As many have observed this week, the attention lavished on Ahmadinejad in New York only strengthens him at home, where he is otherwise exceedingly unpopular — not because of his hard-line on Israel, but because of his economic policies. Last December, his party lost ground in city council elections in what was widely seen as a referendum on his leadership.
“At the end of the day, those in Iran that are trying to move diplomatically are having their jobs constantly undermined by the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad,” Parsi said. “Every time he gives an interview, half the Iranian Foreign Ministry has to focus on damage control.”
While a wave of negative editorials, columns and condemnations suggest Ahmadimejad did little to rehabilitate his reputation in the United States, Jewish groups also struggled to deal with their own image problem.
While Ahmadinejad may not be known for holding his tongue, anti-Ahmadinejad rhetoric continues to escalate to near-apocalyptic proportions, particularly in Jewish circles. Ahmadinejad is now routinely compared to Hitler and the current period to 1938, the year in which a naive British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, sacrificed the Sudetenland to an ascendant Nazi Germany. At the U.N. rally Monday, many protesters held yellow signs featuring Ahmadinejad’s face in the center of a black swastika.
“President Ahmadinejad seeks to be another Hitler,” U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said at the rally, in a comment typical of the way speakers described the Iranian leader. “He brags about it.”
This rhetorical escalation comes as the Jewish community confronts allegations that the pro-Israel lobby used its outsized influence in Washington to propel the American invasion of Iraq. For some, the current situation contains dangerous echoes of the run-up to the Iraq war, a concern that Jewish leaders shared not too long ago. Yet this week, in a battle over perceptions, the media spotlight was focused on the centrality of Jewish groups in ratcheting up the pressure on Iran.
For Jewish leaders, Hitler-Ahmadienjad comparisons appear morally clarifying, placing the Iran issue in stark terms as a choice between good and evil. They also suggest a narrow range of policy options: The commonly understood lesson of 1938 is that tyrants cannot be reasoned with — only confronted with Churchillian resolve.
The potential danger of a nuclear Iran does not allow for a more cautious approach, say Israeli leaders, Jewish organizations and many U.S. lawmakers and presidential candidates. But some observers of Iran see things differently.
“We’re constantly focused on the most extreme and radical comments,” Parsi said. “But if we’re only focused on them, then we paint ourselves into a corner where the only way out is war.”