Skip to main content

Reading Ahmadinejad in Washington

Hillel Fradkin

Will the United States declare war on the Islamic Republic of Iran? For months, this question has been the theme of diplomatic and public discourse—with horror usually expressed at the idea. But it now seems that we have this backwards. For the import of the letter that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, sent to President Bush in the first week of May is that Ahmadinejad and Iran have declared war on the United States. Many reasons are given, but the most fundamental is that the United States is a liberal democracy, the most powerful in the world and the leader of all the others. Liberal democracy, the letter says, is an affront to God, and as such its days are numbered. It would be best if President Bush and others realized this and abandoned it. But at all events, Iran will help where possible to hasten its end. The full text of the letter, translated into English from the original Persian, can be found here.

Neither the Bush administration nor its many critics appear to appreciate the significance, ideological and practical, of the letter. Nor do they appear to appreciate the remarkable boldness of Ahmadinejad personally. For the formal characteristics of the letter as well as its substance have ancient and modern analogs—letters of Muhammad to the Byzantine, Persian, and Ethiopian emperors of his day warning them to accept Islam and his rule or suffer the consequences, and a letter from Khomeini to Mikhail Gorbachev along similar lines. Thus, Ahmadinejad presents himself as the true heir of Muhammad and Khomeini and may even be suggesting that he is a founder himself. At the least, he presents himself as the spokesman and leader of Islam and the Muslim world in its entirety, transcending the Shiite/Sunni divide. Both this boldness and this claim are consistent with the whole series of pronouncements and actions Ahmadinejad has taken in the brief period since he was elected last summer. But the letter, in its form and substance, raises this to a new and much higher level of clarity and power as well as menace.

The Bush administration and its critics have ignored all this. They have chosen to view the letter within a narrower prism—the question of negotiations or rather non-negotiations over Iran’s enrichment of uranium. For the administration, the letter contained “nothing new” in this regard. For Bush’s critics, it was an “opening,” one that could best be exploited if the United States were to drop its resistance to direct participation in negotiations with Tehran.

This reaction is not entirely surprising. Ahmadinejad’s letter does have a bearing on the struggle over Iran’s pursuit of enriched uranium. Its long catalog of alleged U.S. crimes against Muslim interests and states specifically, and against Africa, Latin America, and the poorer parts of the world more generally, mimics the standard litany of anti-American complaints. It is intended to further undermine support for the United States and weaken its position in the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. In this it may have some success. But for these purposes, it need not have presented its critique in a religious and ideological mode, up to and including the charge that Bush is a hypocrite in his claim to be “a follower of Jesus Christ.” That is, Ahmadinejad could have done without the theological “meanderings” about which both the administration and its critics complained. Indeed, for these purposes it would have been better if he had. Bush’s critics—including most recently Russia’s Vladimir Putin—like to charge him with hypocrisy, but they are by and large not concerned with Christian standards. And above all, the attack on liberal democracy could not be assumed to appeal to secular critics.

Yet Ahmadinejad did decide to approach the world, Muslim and non-Muslim, theologically—to insist that nuclear proliferation is not only an issue of policy but also of theology, indeed of the most fundamental and important issues of theology. He defends the right not only of Iran to nuclear technology but also of all Muslim countries as Muslim. Indeed they have not only a right but a duty to pursue such technology. The issue must be understood in the light of the most fundamental and important conflict in the world today as Ahmadinejad sees it—a fundamental conflict between Islam and its rivals, most immediately liberal democracy as embodied in the United States, but also Christianity.

All of this can be seen partially but still somewhat dimly in Ahmadinejad’s emphasis on Christian hypocrisy, which may in this context mean two things: violations by self-professed Christians of the standards and teachings of historic Christianity, or the violation by historic Christianity of the true teachings of the Prophet Jesus. The latter is a traditional Islamic view of the defect and even crime of historic Christians. In calling upon Bush, as Ahmadinejad does emphatically, to embrace the “teachings of the prophets,” he is calling upon him not only to abandon liberal democracy but Christianity as well—to embrace Islam, to which all the world must ultimately submit, and which is gathering momentum in our time.

This is the way the letter will be understood and received by many Muslims, both inside and outside Iran. Far from being simply meandering, the letter manages to interweave appeals to two different audiences, the non-Muslim and largely secular world and the Muslim world. Its objective—to prosecute the war on behalf of Islam—unites the two. To that end, it aims to divide and weaken Islam’s adversary—the non-Muslim world—and to rally the Muslim world behind Ahmadinejad. In both respects it seems so far to be succeeding. Ahmadinejad followed the publication of the letter with a visit to Indonesia, the largest and most moderate of all Muslim countries and also very far removed from Iran’s usual sphere of concerns. Iran invested heavily in ensuring that he received a warm and even triumphal reception there. Ahmadinejad seems to have received praise from Indonesian officials and the leaders of other Muslim countries in the region, as well as from clerical figures, including the head of Indonesia’s Islamic State University, generally regarded as a leader of moderate Islam. Ahmadinejad has not only declared war but has taken an interim victory lap.

But, it may be asked, So what? So what if Ahmadinejad has declared that Islam is in fundamental, even mortal, conflict with the rest of the world? Formally that has always been the position of the Iranian Revolution. So what if he declares that Iran and the Muslim world are now on the march and have seized the initiative? The power of Iran may be measured in concrete ways and is, for now, limited and may remain so if we can only reach agreement on halting uranium enrichment. Are Ahmadinejad and Iran not further limited by his disability that he is a Shiite in a Muslim world that is overwhelmingly Sunni? And so what if Ahmadinejad implicitly lays claim to the mantle of Khomeini? Will he not ultimately be constrained by the very regime Khomeini established and built, in which he is presently subordinate to others—the regnant ayatollahs, including Khamenei the Supreme Guide—with a greater claim on authority? Will not the latter constrain him, if only out of self-interest and their own ambition to rule?

So what, in short, if Ahmadinejad wants to see the world in theological terms and to believe Islam is on the march and he is at its head? So what if he sees fit to burden us with these theological musings? The world, when all is said and done, is something else, and his views are out of touch with its reality and even, may it be said, delusional.

These objections would be more persuasive if we could forget that we have within living memory experience of revolutionary leaders—for that is what Ahmadinejad emphatically is—who faced apparently great odds in coming to personal power and great odds in taking on the powers of the world and nevertheless achieved both. Such people come up with practical if brutal solutions to their apparent disabilities. For us, who are ever so prudent and cautious, it would be safer to entertain the possibility that Ahmadinejad is a man who may also find solutions to the obstacles in his way, a man who finds great opportunities to be exploited and has the cunning and the will to do so.

Indeed, there is substantial evidence that he has already begun. Although subordinate to higher authority in the Iranian regime, he came to office in that regime at a time when its morale was low. He has managed to revive its spirit, especially among the cadres, like the militia, on whom it depends. It is a serious question whether his superiors—who ever since the rise of the reform movement in 1997 have been preoccupied by fear of collapse—do not need him as much as he needs them.

It is true that Ahmadinejad presently occupies a subordinate office, a deficiency reinforced by the fact that he is not a jurist, let alone an ayatollah, and thus lacks the credentials for supreme rule as defined by the principle of the regime—“the rule of the jurisprudent.”

But he may be in the process of addressing that difficulty by enlisting a source of authority—the Hidden Imam—consistent with and even superior to that principle. Ahmadinejad has presented himself as the herald or “prophet” of the Hidden Imam—the ultimate, if absent, ruler and authority for so-called Twelver Shiism—and has gone so far as to claim that he had a vision of the Imam, at the U.N. of all places.

It remains to be seen what further use Ahmadinejad may make of this status and the kind of authority it may convey and with what success. It would amount to a further radicalization of Khomeini’s original radical break with the tradition of Twelver Shiism, which opposed and still opposes the political engagement of clerics. Formally it is constrained by the regime Khomeini founded, but emotionally it is a plausible extension. At least one ayatollah is reported to have declared in recent days that Ahmadinejad’s letter was the “hand of God.”

At all events, there is little evidence that his ostensible superiors are inclined to restrain him. Ayatollah Khamenei gave a talk prior to the letter that endorsed Ahmadinejad’s policies without reservation. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s supporters in the Basij militia and other “revolutionary” institutions have announced and begun to implement a purge of “opponents of the revolution” in key places, including the universities. In the presently unforeseeable event that his superiors tried to force a showdown, it is not clear who would have more “troops.”

Outside Iran, Ahmadinejad encounters a world of opportunities. The non-Muslim countries are very much divided over Iran’s ambitions, acting either hesitantly or at cross purposes. Even his main adversary, the United States, seems divided and uncertain.

The Muslim world, for its part, is rich with the opportunities created by great longing, great resentment, and great anger. Those longings (for a more glorious role for Islam) and those resentments (over the fallen estate of Islam) have been brewing for a long time. For those in the Muslim world moved by these sentiments, the attacks of September 11, 2001, offered the satisfaction of a victory and produced admiration for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

But Osama also promised further victories, that this was the beginning, not the end, of the new Islamic jihad. And in this he has not been successful, presumably because of the vigor of American and allied attacks on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Even in Iraq, where al Qaeda under the direction of Abu Musab al Zarqawi keeps up the battle, it has not yet achieved its aim of driving American forces out and may not. Moreover, its engagement in Iraq has had liabilities for al Qaeda, which were the substance of al-Zawahiri’s letter of last summer. Al Qaeda as such may be in decline.

In these circumstances, Ahmadinejad has attempted to step into bin Laden’s place as the leader of the radical Islamic movement, as the man with the will and capacity to challenge and threaten the United States. Ahmadinejad has already enjoyed some success in parts of the Muslim world. This has been accompanied by the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and especially Palestine, where Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority. This has permitted him to assert, as he does in his letter, that the forces of radical Islam—or, as he would have it, simply Islam—are on a roll. Ahmadinejad has bent every effort to support and join forces with Hamas and may well succeed. And, as always, he has Hezbollah in Lebanon at his disposal.

From all these developments, the radical movement has gained renewed confidence in the claim, first put forward by Osama bin Laden, that its adversaries, principally the United States, do not have the stomach for a long fight, or even a short one. Islam’s enemies can and will be pushed back and defeated by radical forces, because the latter, unlike their enemies, do not fear death and even welcome it. They can even, as Ahmadinejad recently said, accept the possibility of nuclear war as a necessity of the struggle. Altogether the spirits of the radical Islamic movement are high, and Ahmadinejad is the most powerful voice of that spirit.

This renewed ideological vigor and confidence present us with a host of difficulties in addition to the more material problem of the prospective Iranian bomb. It remains to be seen what we can and will do to keep the mullahs from obtaining nuclear bombs. Were we to be successful by diplomacy—unlikely—or by military action—ruled out of bounds by many—it would certainly affect the ideological struggle, as well as be a great good in itself. It would do so because it would be a defeat, and a significant one, for radical Islam. But given the temper of the man and the needs of the Iranian regime, it would not end ideological and other kinds of warfare.

For the moment all this is unknown. But what is known, or what should be known and deeply grasped, is that everything Ahmadinejad—and for that matter the radical movement as a whole—does is guided by an ideological vision and commitment. It needs to be addressed as such. For the moment and not only for the moment, this requires that liberal democrats declare that they have no intention of abandoning their way of life and see no need to do so, since they are fully prepared to defend it and because that way of life provides the resources—political, economic, and military—to defend itself.

It is necessary to inform Ahmadinejad and his radical allies that they are in for a real fight. This may not suffice to lead them to question their fundamental assumption and inspiration that we are on the run. But it may give pause to the many Muslims and non-Muslims standing on the sidelines, who see radical success and do not see American or Western resolve.

Of course the best person to make the first such declaration is President Bush—not as a Christian but as the world’s leading liberal democrat. And not to Ahmadinejad, for whom a direct reply would be a victory, but to the Iranian people, the Muslim world, and the non-Muslim world.

Related Articles

Libya’s Islamists: A Fragmented Landscape

Alison Pargeter

Post-Qadhafi Libya has been defined by chaos, division and disintegration. With the once-strong center in tatters, the country has fragmented into an ...

Continue Reading

Al-Qaeda After the Arab Spring: A Decade of Expansion, Losses, and Evolution

Katherine Zimmerman

Ten years ago, when popular uprisings and regime change ricocheted through the Arab world, many in the West wrote off al-Qaeda as irrelevant. What the...

Continue Reading

Islam Without Supremacism: A Conversation with Maria Khan

Aparna Pande & Maria Khan

Dr. Maria Khan is affiliated with the Center for Peace and Spirituality (CPS) International, which was founded by her grandfather and well-known Musli...

Continue Reading