April 4, 2007 by Will
The 1979 take-over of the American embassy in Tehran was an international crisis and the first major confrontation between the West and revivalist Shiite Islam. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had his way, however, it would have been much worse.
According to an al-Jazeera profile of Ahmadinejad written during his presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad was not only one of the leaders of the attack on the American embassy, he urged the students to seize the Soviet embassy as well.
It’s hard to imagine the implications of a simultaneous attack on the two embassies, both for Iran and Cold War politics. Presumably the response would be unprecedented cooperation between the superpowers culminating in devastating strikes on Iran’s new regime. Whatever the result would’ve been, Ahmadinejad’s suggestion demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of Cold War balancing, a self-defeating bravado, and, worst, an underlying irrationality.
As the international community wonders whether sanctions or other forms of peaceful coercion will deter Ahmadinejad in his pursuit of nuclear weapons, his behavior leading up to the embassy takeover provides a chilling example of his reckless disdain for international coalitions. If he was unafraid to take on the two most powerful nations in the world and their allies, how likely is it that something as soft and ineffective as sanctions will daunt him?
Fortunately, there are two things that may prevent a nuclear Iran or a military strike on Iran.
First, Ahmadinejad owes his position to the clerical establishment. Ayatollah Khameini may not exactly be a child of the Enlightenment, but his lasting control over the country. If he feels threatened by Ahmadinejad’s militant swaggering, he could remove him without too much trouble. Already Khameinei’s media organs have been expressing displeasure with the belligerent president.
Second, Ahmadinejad’s unthinking aggression can be used against him. Just as he felt no compunction to preserve a potential ally, the Soviet Union, Ahmadinejad may anger supporters in Iran or abroad with his careless bluster. If the Iranian regime lost support from like-minded groups, like al-Qaeda or Kim Jong Il’s government, Ahmadinejad would be isolated and easier to influence.
If either of these factors becomes significant, Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions can be neutralized. If that doesn’t happen, though, the president’s past suggests that no earthly power can dissuade him from achieving his goals.