Last Sunday American television news viewers were treated to the sight of Iran’s President bounding down the steps of his jet into Iraq and hugging the Iraqi President as one brother would another. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went from Baghdad’s airport to a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who gave him a red-carpet welcome. The two kissed four times on the cheek in the traditional fashion, and held hands while a band played the two countries’ national anthems.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian president to visit Iraq. His decision to visit his neighbor in the post Saddam era has everything to do with Iran’s ambitions of influence in Iraq and the region, all of which is in competition with American interests. Ahmadinejad wants to continue to stick it right to the United States in every way that he can. This trip not only highlights his country’s growing influence in the Arab world, but it also has served as another act of defiance toward the U.S., especially since we have accused Iran of training and giving weapons to Shiite extremists in Iraq.
But those issues were not discussed. Indeed no mention was made of the conflict on the borders, including the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway between the two countries. Instead Ahmadinejad crowed that "We had very good talks that were friendly and brotherly. … We have mutual understandings and views in all fields, and both sides plan to improve relations as much as possible."
Talabani said the two discussed economic, political, security and oil issues and planned to sign several agreements later. But he said nothing concerning the arming of the Shiite extremists.
Even more amazing Ahmadinejad stressed that his country wanted a stable Iraq that would benefit the region.
"A united Iraq, a sovereign Iraq and an advanced Iraq is to the benefit of all regional nations and the people of Iran," he said.
Of course what kind of sovereignty he has in mind was another subject not detailed.
And what of the U.S. reaction?
It has been disappointingly low-key. Our stated position is that we welcome Iran’s public intentions of promoting stability but that we feel its actions have done just the opposite. Which is a polite way of saying their interference in Iraq is precluding stability and costing American lives.
In Texas, President Bush said on Sunday that he did not think that Ahmadinejad’s visit undermined U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran, but he also said he had some advice for what al-Maliki should say to the Iranian leader.
"He’s a neighbor. And the message needs to be, quit sending in sophisticated equipment that’s killing our citizens," Bush said.
Unfortunately, that message was never stated as the two new brothers walked hand in hand from the news conference.
Adding more insult to the U.S., Ahmadinejad on Monday, as his Iraqi visit concluded, rambled through an almost hour long news conference dismissing U.S. accusations that his country is training extremists and demanded that the Americans withdraw from Iraq. Ahmadinejad said the U.S. allegations — that Iran is training Shiite militants who target American troops and Muslim rivals — don’t matter to the Iranians.
"Of course American officials make such remarks and such statements, and we do not care … because they make statements on the basis of erroneous information… We cannot count on what they say."
So, like a good neighbor Iran has strolled over to Iraq not only to become brothers and maybe even sisters once again but to displace memories of the conflict between the two a few years back that cost over five million lives. And to step all over the U.S. without ever recognizing the fact that without American intervention Saddam’s regime would never have allowed such a day.
Part of the reason for this visit at this time is simply because Ahmadinejad needs to appear to be a statesman to his own citizenry. He has to face parliamentary elections back home later this month. According to published reports, “the elections are seen as a referendum on the Iranian president, who has come under criticism in his country for spending too much time on anti-Western rhetoric and not enough on Iran’s economic problems.”
If that is the case we have to cease wondering why his inflammatory rhetoric on this trip would help his cause and understand that the mullahs’ regime is sending Ahmadinejad out to be their voice to the world.
No doubt, we hope the people within his own country will repudiate him in speech and at the ballot box. But since his bosses — the mullahs — exercise great control over both, we cannot rely on those tactics alone. A long time ago, we were going to smoke out the enemy and bring them to justice. We have enough evidence of Iran’s involvement in training and arming the extremists in Iraq to do exactly that.
How long we are going to allow Ahmadinejad to go on spitting on us is anybody’s guess, but it certainly doesn’t appear that we are going to answer with anything more than words. Which is why we can expect that one of the first priorities of whomever succeeds George W. Bush will be to stop the Iranian nuclear program that Mr. Bush apparantly has abandoned to the tender mercies of the U.N.