By DeWayne Wickham
It’s hard to imagine that when Barack Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to hold direct talks with America’s enemies he could have contemplated the back and forth he just had with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ok, the exchange between the American president and his Iranian counterpart fell short of a direct conversation. The two men talked at, not to, each other while in New York for the United Nations’ annual General Assembly. But their exchange of barbs came shortly before an expected high-level face-to-face encounter next month between Iranian and U.S. diplomats to discuss the contentious issue of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
It also followed rumored, under the radar, contacts between officials of the two countries’ embassies in Afghanistan that hold out the possibility of cooperation in finding a political settlement to the long-running conflict in that country.
So, while he actually didn’t go mano-a-mano with Ahmadinejad, Obama appears to be making good on his promise, at least in the case of Iran, to talk to this nation’s adversaries – a commitment that probably has him wondering at times: “What was I thinking?”
That question must have flickered through Obama’s mind when Ahmandinejad suggested the U.S. government might have orchestrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people in this country to save a faltering economy and justify a military presence in the Middle East.
Then, Ahmadinejad added injury to insult by claiming a majority of Americans share that view. Nevermind there is no known polling data to support that charge – or even found more than 15% of Americans who agree with it – the Iranian leader didn’t waiver in espousing this idea.
And neither did Obama in rejecting it. “It was offensive. It was hateful,” Obama said of Ahmadinejad’s speech in an interview with the BBC that was broadcasted into Iran.
Ahmadinejad called Obama’s response “amateurish,” as if the two men were involved in a global game of trash talking.
“The power in Iran is segmented. He’s trying to placate the more right wing elements in Iran” by using the U.S. government as a straw man, said James Steele, a political science professor at North Carolina A&T State University.
That’s a plausible explanation for Ahmandinejad’s charge. Another is that he is a mental case.
I’m not talking about the kind of insanity that would get him a one-way ticket to an asylum. But he may well suffer from the kind of mental disorder that is driven by the fanaticism of a religious zealot or fervor of an unyielding ideologue. In fact, Ahmandinejad might actually fit both bills.
Since taking office in 2005, he has used the annual General Assembly as a staging area for his increasingly vitriolic attacks on the United States. Until now, his most confounding attack came when he accused this country of “nuclear apartheid” for trying to deny Iran the nuclear weapons Ahmandinejad has repeatedly said it doesn’t want.
It is the unsettled question of the intent of Iran’s nuclear program that leaves Obama little choice but to keep talking to Iran – at least for now. If the talks next month, which will include Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China, produce meaningful results the exchange he had with Ahmandinejad will a diplomatic blip.
If, however, no progress is made toward proving that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons Obama must decide what to do when talk fails with a nation that has Ahmandinejad at its helm.