Iran's President Sparks Fears of New Isolation

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 5, 2005

ISTANBUL, Nov. 4 -- Having ignited two diplomatic confrontations in as many months, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is raising concern that he intends to steer his country back to the isolation of the early 1980s, a period of radical absolutes that he frequently invokes as an ideal.

Such a course would reverse more than a decade of gradual engagement with the West by Iran's theocratic government. In addition, diplomats and analysts say, it would greatly complicate efforts to ease concern about the country's nuclear program through negotiations.

The diplomatic firestorm sparked by Ahmadinejad's repeated statements last week that "Israel should be wiped off the map" further damaged a negotiating position that he had already undermined, according to analysts. Shortly after Ahmadinejad hinted in a strident Sept. 17 speech at the United Nations that the United States was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the International Atomic Energy Agency voted to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council.

"In Iran as everywhere else in the world, radicalism seeks isolation in diplomacy," said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and commentator in Tehran. Ahmadinejad "seems to be trying to push the country this way," Laylaz said. "He twice mentioned Israel should be wiped off the map -- twice -- and he knows that 20 days later we have to face the IAEA. It's not good for the country."

In the newly tense atmosphere, Ahmadinejad's government announced Wednesday that it was replacing 40 ambassadors and diplomats. Foreign journalists treated the development more as a sign of belligerence than as the routine prerogative of a new administration.

On the same day, Iran's Foreign Ministry, which last weekend issued assurances that the country had no intention of attacking Israel, recalled its ambassador to Rome after reports that Italian officials would join a public protest outside the Iranian Embassy.

Yet Iran also agreed to allow IAEA inspectors back into a high-security military site. A European diplomat said such quiet cooperation appears intended to keep alive the possibility of resuming negotiations suspended after Iran resumed preparations to enrich uranium, despite an agreement with three European powers. Such overtures, however, have been overwhelmed by Ahmadinejad's confrontational rhetoric, which unsettles nations that might otherwise be inclined to support Iran on the IAEA board. The board is made up of nations that have signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"He's made it far easier for those who want the hard line to push for it," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Ahmadinejad's rhetoric echoes the strident sloganeering that has long dominated the hard-line wing of Iranian politics from which he emerged in June, when he was elected to the office he assumed in August. It stands in stark contrast to the subtlety and pragmatism displayed by a wide spectrum of Iranian officials in the past 16 years, as the government moved increasingly toward engaging the rest of the world.

That modest push for engagement provided the foundation for negotiations when Iran's nuclear program came to light three years ago after being kept secret for 18 years. European powers offered to expand trade ties if Iran stopped trying to enrich uranium. In a rare gesture by the United States, which broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after the 444-day takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran between 1979 and 1981, the Bush administration in March withdrew the longstanding American objection to Iran's joining the World Trade Organization.

But Iran's desire for a negotiated settlement has been called into question by Ahmadinejad's speeches.

"This affects everything they do," said Gary G. Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University. "What are their chances with the WTO when the whole world's passing resolutions against them?" Sick was a White House national security aide when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah, a U.S. ally, and established the Islamic republic.

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