Iran's Gift: New Unity In the West

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, February 23, 2006

The fog of negotiation is not for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He prefers to confront the United States and Europe directly over Iran's nuclear and political ambitions. The ex-mayor of Tehran thus sets history's tectonic plates moving faster toward a new era of global conflict.

Two visible changes suggest how far-reaching this conflict is becoming: First, Europeans, not Americans, are the primary immediate targets of Iran's recent gauntlet-hurling. Second, the Europeans are tossing the gauntlets back at Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian firebrand seems to believe that intimidating Britain, France and Germany provides a surer path to nuclear weapons, hegemony over Iraq and the destruction of Israel than did the softer-shoe approach of his ayatollah predecessors. Ahmadinejad is the gift to President Bush's diplomats that keeps on giving.

An intent to menace probably prompted the dispatch of mobs in Tehran and Damascus this month to burn a sudden abundance of Danish flags and to chant "Death to Austria." That small country sits temporarily in the chair of the European Union presidency -- a fact you certainly had at your fingertips, too.

European governments are responding with a firmness and resolve that might not have been predictable even a few months ago. But their movement has been several years in the making: Beset by terrorist bombs and ghetto riots in their cities, and political murders of a Dutch filmmaker and others on their soil in the name of Allah, as well as the sacking of diplomatic outposts in the cartoon riots, Europeans are awakening to the possibility of a return to an era of global bipolar conflict that directly involves them.

Ahmadinejad had already emerged for U.S. policymakers as the new face of the enemy in "the long war" against Islamic extremism. White House officials suspect he hopes to build an ideological counterweight of radical Islamic power to Bush's democracy agenda in the greater Middle East.

In that sense, Ahmadinejad fills a policy need. Saddam Hussein is so yesterday in the American political psyche. The Pentagon's determination to fight wars that can be won by network-centric technology -- overcoming integrated air defense systems with bombing campaigns, for example -- is badly mismatched with the nasty insurgency in Iraq. But it would get new life in Iran.

Considering the troubles the United States faces in Iraq, I shudder to think that one of Don Rumsfeld's life lessons is this: If you cannot solve a problem, enlarge it. But the Bush administration is embarked on a serious international diplomatic effort to isolate and contain Iran and its allies and should be given credit for that. Hold the paranoia, at least for the moment.

The science of plate tectonics calls a moment such as this convergent boundary movement. That happens when two 50-mile-thick shelves of Earth are on a collision course. And an important collateral shift also appears: While the distances between them remain large, the European and American plates of perception begin to move in the same direction again.

U.S. diplomacy is adroit enough under Condoleezza Rice to benefit from Ahmadinejad's sticking of the Iranian thumb in every available eye, including Russia's. But the real story of the new transatlantic togetherness has been the spreading public concern in Europe about Islamic extremism, at home and abroad.

That concern is increasingly shared even by the Old Continent's sizable Muslim minorities. With some execrable exceptions, they have publicly distanced themselves from the embassy-burning, throat-cutting fanatics who claim to speak for their religion.

And Europe's tendency to see Israel as the source of all Middle East evil must adjust, however reluctantly, to the political demise of the Palestine Liberation Organization and of a certain romantic vision of Palestinian nationalism at the hands of Hamas. That Islamic organization rejects peace negotiations and a two-state solution even more firmly than do Israeli hawks.

This is not to suggest that the "happy" days of threat-enforced Cold War unity are here again. Divergences will persist over whether Western money can and should be channeled around a Hamas-led government to the Palestinian police. Europe is for channeling; the United States is against. (Europe has the better long-term case.)

But such differences become more tactical than strategic in the new policy environment. Old disagreements over Iraq become less important than new agreements on Iran. When French President Jacques Chirac suggests, even obliquely, as he did recently, that the use of nuclear weapons is a possible response to terrorism that threatens France, the grinding of tectonic plates can be heard beneath his words and beneath the protests from the Iranians that they were the target of Chirac's remarks.

The new transatlantic unity of purpose and perception is fragile. It must be maintained through effective consultation, disciplined diplomacy, and the continued shelving by the Bush administration of its unilateralist impulses and its tendency to overreach. The alternative to diplomacy is a Rumsfeldian military expansion of the problem that no one -- not even Ahmadinejad -- should want.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company