Iran: Knee-Jerk Psychology

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently sought to visit Ground Zero during his visit to New York for a United Nations summit. He wanted to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site in honor of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The New York City Police Department reviewed his request, but ultimately denied it citing security concerns. Various presidential candidates weighed in and blasted the Iranian president's "outrageous" request and called him a "state sponsor of terrorism." I watched MSNBC's "Morning Joe" this morning and they expressed similar sentiments.

Seeing that Ahmadinejad has made no secret about his desire to seek nuclear power and that he has made several controversial and incendiary remarks, such as "wiping Israel off the map" and denying the Holocaust, it is no surprise that politicians and the public reacted so vehemently to his request to visit the site of the World Trade Center. However, while this knee-jerk reaction of anger towards the Iranian president may make us feel good for standing up to someone we consider an enemy, I believe it is symptomatic of a larger problem with the American psyche that we are either unaware of or simply don't want to address.

Obviously, I am not saying this to defend Ahmadinejad at the expense of the United States. However, there was a huge missed opportunity here.

President Bush has called Iran part of an "axis of evil." Lots of neoconservatives and even some of the current presidential candidates have alluded to launching a preemptive attack on Iran. The United States maintains no diplomatic relations with Iran. We view Iran as one of the main enemies of one of our most important allies, Israel. We stress that Iran cannot pursue nuclear technology and that if they develop nuclear weapons, we will attack them. In short, the United States has made its disdain for Iran perfectly clear.

Despite this, the Iranian president sought to visit the site of the worst terrorist attack in history and lay a wreath there in honor of the victims. While we may never know his true motives, the fact is he acted in a way that is incongruent with the negative way in which we portray him. Ahmadinejad can now go back to Iran and tell his government and the Iranian people that he tried to extend an olive branch to the United States, but was shot down. So he could plausibly state that the United States is the belligerent nation, not Iran. Young Iranians (those in their 20s and 30s) who are not hostile to America like Iranians from the previous generation will then be given a reason to think less favorably about this nation while placing a bit more confidence in their own leader. Why should we expect the Iranians to listen to our demands about major issues like their military and nuclear technology if we won't even honor their request to visit the site of an international tragedy? Even if the United States wouldn't let him enter Ground Zero itself, would it have been too difficult for them to at least let him see the site from behind a fence or a block away?

Had the United States (I say the United States because I'm sure the New York Police Department was acting as its surrogate) allowed Ahmadinejad to visit Ground Zero, that may have led to a slight thawing of the ice between the two countries. At the very least, it may have given both countries some much needed breathing space as they jockey and posture and rattle their sabres.

Yes, Ahmadinejad is not the poster child of peace, liberty, and human rights. However, the United States should not worry about losing a propoganda battle to Iran. And Democrats and Republicans alike have repeatedly said that 9-11 should not be politicized. However, thumping their chests about how "the dangerous Iranian president should not be allowed to visit this sacred ground" is doing just that. It may win them a few votes, but it doesn't do anything to improve relations between the two countries.

Having lived abroad, I can easily understand that it is foolish to classify nations and politicians as "friends" and "enemies." When you do this, people are less inclined to respect or work with you. The world is much more complicated than "good" and "bad," and any politician who tries to simplify such matters is doing a terrible disservice. President Bush has taken his "either you're with us or against us" rhetoric and led large swaths of the nation to think in a similarly bimodal fashion.

Interestingly, although Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel may have been reduced to a common punchline on late night television and stands no chance of winning his party's presidential nomination, his views on our policy towards Iran and terrorism are particularly prescient.

Be careful of overly simplistic knee-jerk thinking. That is what got us into Iraq and may potentially be what gets us into Iran, but it won't be what gets us out of Iraq responsibly, nor will it be what resolves the Iranian conflict sensibly. Wisdom is more important than pride.

5 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

brilliant piece.

sparks said...

Are you kidding me he wasn't laying a wreath for our lost ones he wanted to honor the site that his brothers in allah martyred themselves for him and all other muslims get over the touchy feely nonsense and get with reality.

Lee said...

The only solution for peace in the Middle East is rated in megatons and takes about 30 minutes to arrive on-scene.
They cannot be trusted, they cannot be negotiated with. They have no respect for the rest of the world!

Anthony Palmer said...


Thank you for your comment. It is much appreciated.



I mentioned in the original post that we will never know Ahmadinejad's true intentions for wanting to go to Ground Zero, but the larger point is that it would have been to the United States' strategic advantage to be more tolerant and more accommodating of him. By branding him a terrorist and ridiculing him at the university before he even had a chance to speak, he ended up scoring a PR coup in the Muslim world that would only make him more difficult to deal with.

Thank you for reading The 7-10.



Thank you for your comment, but I would be careful with making such blanket statements about such a wide swath of the population. Seems to me like the major countries of Europe would also then be guilty of "having no respect for the rest of the world" because of colonialism. And the United States' preemptive attack on Iraq and the lack of accountability among higher ranking military officials and politicians over its transgressions in the prosecution of this war could also be seen as an example of "no respect for the rest of the world."

Your comment is appreciated, but "us vs. them" thinking is never wise. And I believe bombing them is only going to make the problem worse.

Thank you for reading The 7-10.

Anonymous said...

Having lived in the middle east for 15 years, there will be no democracy - ever - as it in incompatible with democracy. I'm AMAZED that you would even think that he had any altruistic motive for wanting to go to ground zero. Ahmadinejad is a nutjob and he proved it even further by opening his mouth at Columbia and the UN. And bombing Iran will only make things worse if we don't take the rest of the middle east out with it.