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Ahmadinejad's High-Stakes Game

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at yesterday's news conference in Tehran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at yesterday's news conference in Tehran. (By Majid -- Getty Images)

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

TEHRAN -- Drivers here play a high-risk game of chicken at every intersection. They barge into the frantic stream of traffic and you think there's going to be a crash for sure. But at the last moment someone usually gives way, and a collision is avoided.

Watching President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a news conference here Tuesday, I had the same mesmerizing anxiety as a passenger in a Tehran taxi. He has moved boldly -- recklessly, it seems to Americans -- into the international traffic flow. He keeps revving his motor, and it looks as if he and the West might be heading for a dangerous crackup over Iran's nuclear program. Will there be a collision, or will leaders produce a compromise at the final instant? Normally, drivers here stop in time -- except when they don't.

"The feeling here is that Iran will go to the threshold of a serious crisis, and the government will find a solution," says Kayhan Barzegar, a professor of international relations here. "It's a cultural matter to wait until the last minute."

The unpredictable factor in this game of brinkmanship is Ahmadinejad. In another defiant move, he laid out a radical vision of an Iranian new world order. The U.N. Security Council is an outdated relic of the post-World War II era and should be abandoned, he said. On the nuclear issue, "no one can stop us." He challenged President Bush to a live debate and seemed certain he would come out the winner.

Seeing Ahmadinejad up close, you appreciate the fact that he is a formidable politician. He played the roomful of 150 journalists like a master performer. He has the look of a bantamweight fighter -- compact and agile, punching well above his weight. He's quick on his feet, answering a broad range of questions, including some critical ones about the Iranian economy, but he came away unscratched. He speaks more softly than you'd expect, making jokes and, on this occasion, avoiding some of his usual anti-Israel bombast. But the hard edge is never far away. His eyes can twinkle one moment and then suddenly become dark as night. My strongest feeling at the end of his performance was: He may be cocky and eccentric, but don't underestimate him.

With a Thursday deadline looming on the nuclear issue, you might expect that Tehran would feel like a garrison town. But it's surprisingly relaxed, and I think that's because most Iranians expect the crisis will be defused somehow. The regime has been putting on a show of defiance as the U.N. deadline approaches, shooting off new missiles in Persian Gulf war games, opening a new heavy-water reactor and festooning downtown streets with banners of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah. But this isn't a militarized country, and it certainly isn't eager for confrontation with America.

"I don't think anyone can think of a way to resolve problems between the U.S. and Iran other than negotiations," says Ali Ahmadi, a 28-year-old writer at the opposition newspaper Sharq. Though he's critical of Ahmadinejad, he describes the technical achievements of Iran's nuclear program as "really satisfying," and he sums up Iran's dilemma this way: "We are watching how much it's worth to continue the nuclear program -- its price. I can see there is this ambivalence, this concern. Because people realize this choice can bring about certain harsh consequences."

Perhaps the most interesting fact of life in Tehran this week is that you can't find anyone who is opposed in principle to dialogue with the United States. Even a few months ago, that topic was almost taboo, but now here's Ahmadinejad himself calling for a public debate with Bush. "The golden key to being popular here is to normalize relations with the U.S.," says Shahriar Khateri, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards who is now a doctor and a participant in a joint project with American scientists to study the effects of chemical weapons.

Iranians are patient people, and they seem to expect this crisis will play out a while longer. They don't want sanctions, but people I talked to don't seem very worried about them, either. Iranians have been living under some form of sanctions for several decades, and they've learned how to make their own cars, steel and pharmaceuticals -- and now missiles and nuclear reactors.

I come back to the fierce jockeying of Tehran's traffic jams. If Ahmadinejad behaves like most local drivers, he will go as far and fast as he can. It's only when the fender is about to be crushed that he will put on the brake. That's why this crisis is so dangerous -- it's easy to miscalculate when nobody knows the rules of the road.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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