Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s annual United Nations freak show has commenced, and the press is eating it up. The Iranian leader held forth for a group of journalists this morning and didn’t disappoint. He claimed Jews have no historical roots in the Middle East and said Israel would disappear. He attacked Western freedom of speech and alluded to his past practice of denying the Holocaust while bragging that Western opposition to its nuclear program wouldn’t intimidate Iran. He will, no doubt, repeat and embellish these insults and threats as he has in the past when he addresses the General Assembly on Wednesday, which just happens to be Yom Kippur. But the problem with Ahmadinejad is not just that he says terrible things and revels in the attention he gets like any other foreign enfant terrible who shows up to speak at the circus-like atmosphere of the world body’s annual jamboree. It’s that not enough people take him seriously.
It’s true that, as Seth wrote earlier, Ahmadinejad has been subjected to probing questions by some of our top foreign policy writers such as David Ignatius, but even those efforts are more focused on the chimera of outreach to Iran than on a clear-headed exploration of the nature of the regime. But on the whole, the main reaction to him is to act as if what he says is meaningless. Granted, it’s not easy for the sophisticated national press corps and the rest of our chattering classes to take seriously a person who looks, sounds and acts as if he is performing a satire on tyrants in the style of Charlie Chaplin or Sacha Baron Cohen. Indeed, the nastier and the crazier he gets, the harder it is for the journalistic world to treat him as anything other than a clown act. But he isn’t. His threats and insults must be listened to and taken seriously. The fact that they are not is no small measure why it has been so difficult to get much of the American foreign policy establishment, as well as the Obama administration, to treat Iran’s nuclear threat as something that requires urgent action rather than just more talk.
It is true, as we hear from those who often urge us not to bother listening to what Ahmadinejad says, that he is not the supreme leader of his country. That is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds his post for life. but he is an important enough player in Iran that the regime felt it necessary to ensure his re-election in 2009 by cooking the books and then violently suppressing the protests that ensued.
Ahmadinejad will, we are told, leave his office at the end of his second term. But while he has become the poster child for Islamist extremism, those journalists who will mourn what is supposed to be the end of his international career need to understand that far from being exceptional, his views perfectly reflect the political culture of the regime.
The inciting of hatred against Jews and other religious minorities in Iran is, after all, not the work of one individual. It is the product of the ayatollah’s religious and political philosophy. The vast terrorist network that starts in Tehran and stretches to Damascus, Beirut, Gaza and anywhere else where Iran’s terrorist auxiliaries can reach (such as Bulgaria, where Israeli tourists were murdered this past summer) is not a figment of Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical flights of fancy. It is a real and deadly threat to the world.
It is natural for even those who are genuinely outraged by Ahmadinejad to make a joke of his New York visit. We can all get a good laugh from the New York Post’s stunt in which they sent a Jewish-themed gift basket to his hotel including gefilte fish, bagels, and a brochure from a Holocaust museum and a free ticket to the show “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”
But the day Iran gets its bomb because the United States spent years pretending that diplomacy would work, instead of setting red lines that might convince the regime the administration meant business, won’t be very funny. Perhaps then those Americans who treated Iran as merely an extension of Ahmadinejad’s comedy act will realize that his anti-Semitism and bluster was no joke.