Israel has lost a key ally in its struggle against Iran—Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. From his inauguration in 2005 to his replacement on Sunday, there was no one in the world who did more to advance Israeli foreign interests. For without the bearded madman raving in Tehran, the international community would have never come together in such an unprecedented manner to isolate and sanction Iran over its nuclear program.
The Israelis had long perceived the Iranian nuclear program as a burgeoning existential threat, and accordingly have been the chief proponents of measures against it. As early as 1992, prominent Israelis across the political spectrum were warning of the danger and urging international cooperation against it. Foreign minister Shimon Peres called Iran “the greatest threat and greatest problem in the Middle East, because it seeks the nuclear option while holding a highly dangerous stance of extreme religious militancy.” And Benjamin Netanyahu, then a deputy minister, called for “an international front headed by the U.S.” to “uproot” the threat. But in spite of Israeli entreaties, America only slowly came around, with its primary focus on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The rest of the world paid little attention.
So, at the turn of the millennium, the international front against Iran had just two members. The 2002 revelation of secret nuclear activities—most notably the massive enrichment halls at Natanz—grabbed the attention of several European powers. Yet they were hardly committed opponents of Iran. Hossein Mousavian, then a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, and Mohammed ElBaradei, then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, each noted in their memoirs that both the German and British foreign ministers said privately that Europe was taking a leadership role in nuclear talks only because they wanted to be a “human shield” preventing a U.S. or Israeli attack. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office, the international community was watching Iran’s nuclear activities closely—talks with the IAEA were regular—but there was no consensus, and the Security Council had taken no action. Sanctions were spare, climbing oil prices promised new prosperity, and the Americans had just overthrown Iran’s enemies to the east (the Taliban) and west (Saddam).
From Iran’s perspective, however, the situation was still far from perfect. Ahmadinejad and his team felt that the West was subjecting Iran to unfair scrutiny, and that their predecessors’ willingness to negotiate had only increased Western demands. And so at home, they launched a strident public defense of the nuclear program; abroad, they sought to “look to the East,” attempting to gain the support of China, Russia, the Muslim world and the Nonaligned Movement to balance the Israelis, the United States and their halfhearted European supporters. The latter move was a miscalculation—Mousavian would charge that the “‘looking to the East’ policy exaggerated the cohesion, abilities, and willingness of the ‘Eastern bloc’ to confront the West,” that “in some instances, it even consolidated Eastern and Western countries against Iran,” and that the policy’s “failure was a blow to the credibility of Iran’s foreign policy.” And the Ahmadinejad administration’s public defense of the nuclear program, while successful as a domestic political move, did little for Tehran’s position abroad.
These were mistakes, and are sufficient to account for some of Iran’s troubles. Yet the blame for Iran’s present isolation and misery rests squarely on Ahmadinejad’s badly tailored shoulders. He missed no opportunity to make himself appear erratic and irresponsible in international fora. His international debut, just over a month into his first term, was a wandering speech before the United Nations General Assembly. His remarks included references to “the Zionist occupation regime,” oblique doubts that Al Qaeda really carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks, and hints that Israel is secretly manipulating world affairs behind the scenes. All this was bookended by millenarian religious rhetoric, including a closing call for the return of the Mahdi. He allegedly later told a cleric that he had been bathed in a divine light during the speech.
One month after the UN speech, addressing a “World Without Zionism” conference in Tehran, he stated of Israel that “the establishment of the occupying regime of Qods [Jerusalem] was a major move by the world oppressor [the United States] against the Islamic world.” He praised the conference’s title, saying that “They say it is not possible to have a world without the United States and Zionism. But you know that this is a possible goal and slogan.” He compared the arrival of a world without the United States and Israel to the fall of the Shah and of the Soviet Union. He followed this with his most controversial remark—a statement translated by the New York Times as “Our dear Imam [Khomeini] said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map...I have no doubt that the new wave that has started in Palestine, and we witness it in the Islamic world too, will eliminate this disgraceful stain from the Islamic world.”
The translation has been hotly disputed—some argue that Ahmadinejad had not said that Israel “must be wiped off the map,” but rather that it “will vanish from the page of time.” The Israelis did not feel it was terribly important whether their demise was being invoked in the passive or active voice. The fact that Ahmadinejad reprised these remarks at a Holocaust denial conference the next year was even more alarming—and his timing could not have been worse, as Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was visiting German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin the same day, making for a powerful joint denunciation of the Iranian leader.
Suffice to say all of Ahmadinejad’s remarks recounted above—and the many similar ones he made over his eight-year presidency—were unnecessary. All Iranian leaders have to take a hard line on Israel and invoke divine will—these are each part of the Islamic Republic’s raison d’être. Yet stating these positions in such particularly outrageous terms served no purpose. Ahmadinejad lent credibility to Israeli warnings that an apocalyptic regime could not be trusted with apocalyptic weapons. And thus his remarks cost Iran dearly. Mousavian notes: “Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy enabled the United States and Israel to win over the EU, Russia, China, India, Japan and other countries on the referral of Iran’s [nuclear] dossier to the Security Council and to orchestrate unprecedented sanctions resolutions against Iran at the United Nations.” Many states have also launched unilateral sanctions. Coupled with the Ahmadinejad team’s economic mismanagement, the result has been a disaster: bursts of extreme inflation, shriveled oil exports, falling currency reserves, high unemployment and a cutoff from international banking. And Ahmadinejad’s remarks made it impossible to address the crisis in Iran’s international position directly: as Mousavian notes, “the unnecessary controversies that Ahmadinejad created also raised the domestic political costs in Washington of talking to Iran. This contributed to the failure of Obama’s engagement policy.”
In short, then, Ahmadinejad brought Israel major successes in what has become a central goal of its foreign policy. Israeli leaders had been trying, and failing, to convince the world Iran was dangerous for more than a decade. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did that successfully in just a few months. Netanyahu ought to send a card thanking him for his services.
Image: Marcello Casal Jr\ABr. CC BY 3.0.