Columbia University students got it right. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s bombastic president, told the packed university auditorium that there were no homosexuals in Iran, the student crowd burst into laughter. Humor and satire have always been good weapons against political stupidity and tyranny. The eager-to-be-provocative Iranian president said a number of stupid things yesterday, as he often does—for example, repeating that the Holocaust should be treated as a theory and not a fact—all of which were worthy of ridicule.
Instead, a growing group of political and media figures, mostly on the Right, are doing their best to use Ahmadinejad’s provocations to help stoke the argument and prepare the context for U.S. military conflict with Iran. Fox News just loves Ahmadinejad.
Iran’s serious human rights violations (including allegations that teenage boys were hanged for being gay), support for terrorism in conflicts around the world, support for insurgents in Iraq who are killing Iraqi civilians and American soldiers, and—most alarmingly—its development of a nuclear capacity that could easily translate into weapons, are serious problems the rest of the world is rightly concerned with.
But there are no military solutions to those problems, and potential military strikes against Iran by the United States or Israel will only make the above problems worse. A dear friend of mine, an influential rabbi, once told me that if there was a way that a surgical air strike against Iran could remove their nuclear threat, he would support it as a just use of force. But because there is no way that such a military strike could accomplish those goals, he is against such an American action. Nothing short of an American invasion and occupation of Iran might assure the destruction of Iran’s nuclear program; and a second occupation in the region is hardly a practical or political—let alone moral—option.
What Fox News doesn’t tell us is that President Ahmadinejad is not the supreme leader of Iran—the religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei is. The role of president in Iran is only one of many figures with political power, and not the most important one in the country’s complicated political and religious system. And Ahmadinejad’s clear immaturity as a leader, combined with his failure to deliver things that he has promised, has placed him in serious political trouble in his own country.
Nothing would serve the political career and purposes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad better than to be able to provoke a military confrontation with the United States which would, almost certainly, unite all the competing factions in Iran around him in a nation under attack. And that is exactly why this irresponsible and self-aggrandizing politician is being so deliberately provocative. Ahmadinejad and Dick Cheney ultimately want the same thing—another confrontation. What does that tell you?
So don’t give him what he wants by bombing his country. Then take all the problems above very seriously. Enter into real negotiations with Iran, using a variety of carrots and sticks, and especially reach out to the forces of democratic reform in that country (which we would only help crush with a U.S. military confrontation). In the meantime, laugh at Ahmadinejad.