Four years ago, Iran was the authoritarian Middle Eastern country readiest for democratic change. It had had a fundamentalist government for 23 years, making the fundamentalists the corrupt, authoritarian rulers rather than the populist agitators against corruption and authoritarianism. It had an educated population, with the third lowest fertility rate in the Middle East (since then it’s dropped to lowest). And a significant fraction of its population even agreed with Bush’s statement that it was an Axis of Evil country – Thomas Friedman cited a survey saying 49% did, in late 2002.
And Bush has singlehandedly blown it all away. Instead of keeping the pressure rhetorical, he first invaded Iraq and then started harping on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Most importantly, he signaled that trash talk constituted serious foreign policy.
I know that it wasn’t in 2003 that statements like,
Top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said work would start as early as today on installing 3,000 uranium enriching centrifuges at a key nuclear plant, in defiance of the resolution over Iran’s contested atomic programme. “Our immediate response to the UN SC is that, as of today, we will start the activities at the site of the 3,000 centrifuge machines in Natanz and we will go ahead with full speed,” he said.
“We have said repeatedly that if the West wanted to exploit the UN Security Council it will not only have no influence but make us more determined to pursue our nuclear goals even faster,” he told the hardline Kayhan daily.
were born. Khrushchev didn’t need Bush to say “We will bury you.” But there was a significant uptick in in-your-face rhetoric after 2003 in the Middle East; under Khamenei, Iran never made statements rising to the level of the pro-Western Shah’s, “You buy our crude oil and sell it back to us, redefined as petrochemicals, at a hundred times the price you’ve paid to us…; it’s only fair that, from now on, you should pay more for oil. Let’s say 10 times more” before 2003.
In normal diplomacy, these statements are an unmitigated disaster. All politics, from office politics to geopolitics, is based on getting allies who are willing to make you more powerful. In-your-face statements that scare the world are never good for that; unfortunately, they are great in making a belligerent politician sound strong at home. Bush created a climate that encouraged these statements, enabling Ahmadinejad to portray his enemies at home not as democratic populists but as American stooges.