Iran's Useful Reminder

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, October 30, 2005

Most Valuable Politician of the year? How about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who has surged ahead for the 2005 MVP award in the few months he has been in office? He reminds a distracted world at crucial moments of the true nature of Iran's regime, of the abiding source of conflict in the Middle East and of the deeper meaning of global terrorism.

Racial and religious hatreds are at the core of these phenomena -- and at the heart of Ahmadinejad's pledges to see Israel "wiped off the map" and to ensure that Arabs who recognize the Jewish state "burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury." His statements were reported in laudatory terms by Iranian state-run television Wednesday.

Even though the Persian chauvinists who took power in Tehran in 1979 have been more discreet in public in recent years, it is not news that they hate both Jews and Arabs -- or that the sentiment is returned. If novelty there was, it lay in statements of condemnation that European governments issued as the inflammatory remarks spread around the globe.

Britain, France and Germany raced to distance themselves from Ahmadinejad's double-barreled anti-Semitic blast. They have been negotiating with his regime in hopes of rehabilitating it. A spiteful and belligerent speech the Iranian leader gave at the United Nations in mid-September had already signaled the enormousness of their task. But they persisted.

Now even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, perhaps the coldest and most uncaring fish in international diplomacy, feels compelled to mutter that the Iranian firebrand's statements were "unacceptable."

This is not, however, a discussion of diplomatic strategies to deal with a government that does not believe in them, nor an account of recent, modest shifts that have made Washington's policy toward Iran more coherent and effective. Those items remain for another day.

We are taken into the territory of the heart rather than the head by Ahmadinejad's unguarded words and by the statements of outrage they elicited -- some from nations that had enshrined racial hatred as official policy and practice six decades ago or less. The Iranian's words suggest the huge challenge that the Middle East presents; the European reaction promises that people can change -- that they can learn not only to tolerate their neighbors but also to demand that others have the decency to do the same.

The fates of Nazi Germany and Vichy France are not the only lessons available to Iranians -- or for that matter to Israelis or Americans -- of the bitter fruits of preaching and practicing racial hatred. In neighboring Iraq, a regime that committed genocide against the Kurdish tribesmen of the north and persecuted Shiite Arabs in the south lies in ruins and seems incapable of rising again.

Because Saddam Hussein would not leave them in the peace and isolation of their mountain redoubt, Iraq's Kurds went to war against Baghdad three decades ago. They deliberately set in motion the chain of events that were to bring an American invasion force to Baghdad to overthrow the dictator in 2003. While he could not foresee exactly how it would happen, the late Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani told me in 1972 that it would. I was skeptical; he was right.

No political outcome can balance the scales of personal grief and loss brought by the loss of 2,000 and more American service personnel in Iraq since the invasion began. Human lives cannot be measured and counted as instruments or integers of policy or politics.

So the fact that Kurds live in freedom today from racial pogroms directed at them from Baghdad -- in large part because of U.S. protection and sacrifice -- can assuage no mother's grief or friend's anger over U.S. casualties. But neither can the positive change that American actions have brought simply be dismissed or ignored.

Barzani's son, Massoud, visited the White House last week to thank the American nation, through President Bush, for those sacrifices and to reiterate the Kurds' commitment to staying in a "federal" Iraq that institutionalizes their autonomy -- and survival. Federalism for the Kurds is not some legalistic ploy to maximize their share of oil reserves, or a thumb to stick in Arab eyes in revenge. It is a chance to live and to let live.

Iran's Ahmadinejad shows no inclination to adopt that approach. He seems to have been shepherded into office by the ruling ayatollahs to pursue the politics of hatred and confrontation after a period of conflicting signals on their intentions. Thanks for the reminder, guys.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company