The annual gathering of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York has become a ritualistic soapbox for leaders of notably authoritarian or dictatorial denominations to launch a fusillade of undiplomatic ranting against fellow leaders and states, mostly democratic. In the past, the hallowed UN podium has been disgraced by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s fist pounding and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez’s licentious reference to US president George W. Bush as the devil.
Last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repugnant claim that the events of 9/11 were a US conspiracy set an all-time low in this regard, triggering a walkout by the representatives of 33 countries—a new record. The diatribe could have been dismissed as the ravings of an insensate boor, but for the fact that he actually might believe this fallacy. That does not augur well for the storm gathering over Iran.
Indeed, at the heart of the crisis is the dangerous misperception that Tehran and Washington have of each other. The US, Ahmadinejad expounded in an expansive interaction with leading US scholars on the eve of his UN speech, is an amoral and bankrupt political and economic system, which is on its last legs. His misperception is matched by those in Washington and other Western capitals who are equally convinced that the Iranian regime is on the verge of collapse and it is only a matter of time before there will either be a civil war or a popular uprising that will go on to establish a secular, liberal and democratic system. Neither of these myths is grounded in reality.
While it is true that the Western-dominated economic system is in crisis, it is by no means at its death knell. Besides, at the moment there is no alternative viable economic system—certainly not the Iranian state-run one. Similarly, while Ahmadinejad’s government is under severe domestic pressure and he is likely to face impeachment charges, the Iranian regime is unlikely to shed its robes and beards and change its hue overnight.
Nonetheless, the mutual misperceptions persist and have led to serious miscalculations. For instance, Tehran believes that a beleaguered US and its allies, already engaged in two wars, are unlikely to be keen on a third military entanglement in Iran, but it does not anticipate unconventional attacks. Even as Ahmadinejad was basking in the spotlight in New York, the Stuxnet computer worm was wreaking havoc on Iran’s strategic nuclear capabilities. While the source of the cyber attack may never be identified, it is suspected to have originated from either the US or Israel.
Similarly, Tehran grossly miscalculated the level of support it would get from Russia. While Moscow supplied the first tranche of fuel for the long-delayed Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Kremlin also hedged its bets with the West by rescinding its promise to sell the sophisticated S-300 air defence system to Iran. Without the system, Iran’s strategic nuclear sites are vulnerable not only to the US and Israel, but also to the growing military capability of its Arab neighbours; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have recently invested over $100 billion in arms sales, especially on strike aircraft and missile defence systems.
However, it would be a serious miscalculation on the part of the US and the West to think that Iran is friendless and cornered. China, Turkey and Brazil are likely—for different reasons—to continue supporting and defending Tehran. This will prevent the full impact of UN sanctions being pushed by the US.
Clearly, both sides missed a “golden opportunity” to negotiate their way out of the dangerous impasse on the sidelines of the UN. In this instance, the blame lies squarely with Ahmadinejad, who chose to play to the galleries back home with his unsavoury tirade, instead of trying to avert the impending showdown confronting his country and the region.
W Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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