In non-Miers, non-Fitzgerald news (which, yes, does exist), the President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the destruction of Israel at a major Islamist convention in Tehran. While Middle Eastern leaders have always hated the existence of Israel and fanned the flames of anti-Semitism, Ahmadinejad’s comments have caused a major international firestorm – Israel has demanded Iran be expelled from the United Nations and even Kofi Annan has had to publicly disavow the Ahmadinejad’s statements.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Blair has directly called Iran a threat to global security. Meanwhile, Blair has also highlighted the connection between terrorist activity in Iraq and the Iranian government.
The Iranians are playing a dangerous game. Their nuclear program continues unabated, and if Iran’s increasingly hostile President gets ahold of nuclear weapons, a preemptive strike to remove that capability may become necessary. However, this saber-rattling may not be as much a sign of strength as a sign of weakness. Iran has a significant anti-government pro-democracy underground, and the “election” of Ahmadinejad in the aftermath of the more reform-oriented Mohammad Khatami has only exacerbated the tensions just underneath Iran’s society. As Ahmadinejad holds massive – and likely paid – anti-Israel demonstrations in Tehran it seems possible that he’s using the old Middle Eastern trick of inflaming anti-Semitic tensions in order to relieve pressure elsewhere.
Despite the high price of oil, the average Iranian is feeling the effects of Iran’s weak economy, which has led to high prices on consumer goods and a sense of economic malaise. The Tehran stock exchange has dropped 20% since Ahmadinejad was elected. Iranian companies are redirecting capital to the much more liberal states in the Middle East such as Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. Despite the high prices for oil on the world markets, the Iranian economy is still sputtering – and having Ahmedinejad make wild anti-Israel statements is not the sort of thing that will make foreign investors consider Iran a good bet.
Given the situation in Iran, it seems clear that Ahmadinejad is using anti-Semitism as a shield against rising discontent in Iran. However, that is a dangerous game. Push things too far and he could end up inviting an Israeli reprisal. Back off too soon and he could look weak in the eyes of his people, only furthering the level of discontent. Ahmadinejad has put himself into an untenable position with his rash words, a position that will only further Iran’s economic slide and exacerbate the tensions within the country. However, so long as Ahmadinejad doesn’t decide to suicidally follow through with his threats, Iran’s saber rattling will ultimately weaken the mullah’s hold on government as the Iranian people begin to demand the same rights and freedoms that their neighbors in the Arab Middle East enjoy. Especially as their co-religionists in Iraq find themselves gaining political power, the pro-democracy movement in Iran will only grow over time. It is not a question of if there will be a democratic groundswell in Iran, but when – and the more Ahmadinejad isolates Iran, the greater that chance becomes.
UPDATE: Syria is also feeling political pressure to reform – so much so that they’re resorting to some very nice pro-government Protest Babes™ to bolster their position. However, with Iraq now well on the path to democracy, Syrian Kurds and other groups aren’t going to let themselves be marginalized anymore. As Samuel Huntington noted, democracy travels in waves, and a wave of democratic sentiment is sweeping the Middle East – leaving leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad seeking anything they can hold on to as to avoid being swept away in it.