Roger Cohen mused in the New York Times the other day that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, may be all hat and no cattle. Iran, he said, is a "paper tiger, a postmodern threat." He scoffed at the notion that Iran will actually build a nuclear weapon and suggested that the Holocaust denier is just what Israel and its supporters would order from central casting--a cartoon villain. If so, he's doing a good job of stirring up more apprehension with his visit to Lebanon, where he was greeted by jubilant crowds, composed of Hezbollah supporters, at Beirut airport, before being whisked off to meetings with his Lebanese buddies.
Ahamdinejad's trip shows that Iran is flexing its muscles in the region and that its creature, Hezbollah, is likely preparing for a new war. It would not be surprising if President Obama's attempt to create a Middle East peace ends up in shambles, as the various sides jockey for power in the aftermath of failed negotiations. Ahmadinejad himself is making it a point to travel to southern Lebanon, only a few miles from the contentious border with Israel. The choice language that Ahmadinejad and his cronies use is revealing:
“Your visit is important to friends, and became more important thanks to our enemies,” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, told Ahmadinejad on arrival, according to the Shiite group’s television channel Al-Manar. Ahmadinejad said that “enemies become more savage when they see friends with each other,” the station said.
Now it's all well and good to dismiss this sort of talk as the routine bluff and bombast of despots. But it's also the case that this isn't simply a case of two chums pumping each other up before a basketball game. Words have meaning and consequences, something that the pooh-poohers of Iranian ambitions are apt to forget.
The fact is that Lebanon is increasingly becoming not just a Syrian but also an Iranian sphere of influence. Perhaps Iran doesn't have the ability to carry out Machtpolitik in the region, but that doesn't mean it isn't trying. Underestimate Ahmadinejad? No way. That, to borrow a neologism from the redoubtable Sarah Palin, is something that needs to be refudiated, and decisively. If Iran is a paper tiger, it appears to have some pretty big fangs.
(Watercolor by L. Shyamal)