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There He Goes Again

Monday, April 20, 2009

Last week, Frida Ghitis wrote this in her WPR column on the U.N. conference on racism in Durban:

As for the official U.N. meeting, deciding whether to attend has become even more complicated for the U.S. now that Iran's Ahmadinejad says that he, too, will sit in. The Iranian announcement of his trip mentioned the "racist policies of the Zionist regime," offering a preview of what Ahmadinejad may say during his turn at the microphone. For U.S. diplomats, sitting in the same room with the Iranian president offers a tempting but risky opportunity to interact with Iran. The move represents another potential step in Obama's effort to stretch a hand towards Tehran, but one that could easily backfire. Instead of easing tensions between the two countries, the context of this particular encounter -- where the rhetoric is sure to make Westerners squirm -- could result in increased tensions and ultimately make rapprochement more difficult.

The United States ultimately decided to boycott the conference. But with Ahmadinejad's absurd statements today, the fact that the U.S. was not in attendance makes little difference in terms of the consequences for U.S.-Iran rapprochement. As Ghitis predicted last week, the events at Durban II now seem very likely to increase tensions.

The larger question, of course, is what exactly Ahmadinejad thought he was doing. Playing for domestic political points? Perhaps. Still, he doesn't need an international forum to do that. Many have argued that Iran is traditionally a rational actor in foreign policy. In WPR's own pages, for example, R.K. Ramazani wrote last month that Iran "has a history of prudent statecraft." That may be true, but it's hard to see how the same case can be made for its current president, and how with him as president a U.S.-Iran rapprochement is even possible.