American Journalist David Ignatius sat down with the presidents of both Iran and the United States last week and found similarity both in the positions the two men occupy now and those they hope to move toward. He concludes the potential for war is there, but also the common ground of their aims and the "bedrock of mutual self-interest." Stephen Coulthart is a recent graduate from the State University of New York in political science. He believes the two leaders, who may at first seem to be polar opposites, actually share similar traits in their rise to power, governing styles and religious conviction. Among these commonalities we may find a way toward peaceful resolution of our differences…
Mr. Ignatius wrote in the Lebanon Daily Star yesterday, "The most telling moment in a conversation I had in New York last week with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came when he was asked if America would attack Iran. He quickly answered "no", with a slight cock of his head as if he regarded the very idea of war between the two countries as preposterous."
"The common strand I take away from this week of Iranian-American conversation is this: the two countries agree on one central fact: Iran is a powerful nation that should play an important role in the international system. Bush put it to me this way: "I would say to the Iranian people: we respect your history. We respect your culture … I recognise the importance of your sovereignty." Here was Ahmadinejad’s formulation when I asked how Iran could help stabilise Iraq: "A powerful Iran will benefit the region because Iran is a country with a deep culture and has always been a peaceful country."
"That’s the challenge: can America and Iran find a formula that will meet each side’s security interests, and thereby allow Iran to return fully to the community of nations after 27 years? Iran can’t achieve its ambitions as a rising power without an accommodation with America. America can’t achieve its interest in stabilising the Middle East without help from Iran. The potential for war is there, but so is the bedrock of mutual self-interest. The simple fact is that these two countries need each other."
Steven Coulthart observed the speeches and interviews occurring this week at the United Nations general assembly and drew his own conclusions. "At the center are two men, Iranian President Ahmadinejad and U.S. President Bush. Both are highly controversial in their home countries and abroad, and would at first glance seem to be polar opposites. Yet, some common threads seem to link the two men – both in terms of their rise to power and their views on religion and the state."
"Both men are leaders with shadowy pasts and a strong spiritual bent. To understand both Ahmadinejad’s and Bush’s similarities, it is vital to analyse their rise to power. Both were outsiders on their respective national stages, and used this status to gain entrance into politics. As the former governor of Texas, Bush was a presidential underdog at first in the 2000 US election. Critics argued that his lack of foreign policy experience and relative obscurity to the American public were major handicaps to his campaign. However, the election’s result showed that Bush’s reputation as an outsider enabled him to persuade socially conservative voters that he would restore morality to the scandal-ridden Presidency and would be able, because he was an outsider, to end Washington’s political gridlock.
"Similarly, Ahmadinejad emerged in Iranian politics as an outsider coming from a lesser post as mayor of Tehran. In a strikingly similar tactic as Bush, Ahmadinejad used his outsider’s position to provide an alternative to frustrated voters. Election results from the US in 2004 revealed a country divided to the core and put the political divisions between rural and urban areas into focus. The Bush campaign was effective in appealing to red (rural) state voters who emphasised “moral values” deemed higher than their blue state counterparts’ when picking a candidate. Interestingly, Ahmadinejad appealed to a similar rural population of Iran just as Bush had to rural America through a mix of social conservatism and promises to improve the lot of Iran’s underclass.
"In both the US’s 2004 and Iran’s 2005 elections, religion’s role in politics was greatly increased. Both Bush and Ahmadinejad were able to tap into feelings of marginalisation among conservative religious groups that were frustrated by liberal political forces in their countries. Even more interestingly, the percentages of both countries’ populations who would classify themselves as religiously conservative are roughly the same. According to estimates by Hadi Semati of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, approximately 35% of Iranians support religious conservative candidates. According to a 1993 Gallop poll of Americans, 33% of Americans agreed with the statement, "The Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word."
"Once in office, these two leaders have also taken similar roads, particularly with regard to foreign policy. Ahmadinejad, only a year into his Presidency, has aggressively pursued a policy of developing nuclear technology, and has not shied away from confrontations with the United Nations and the world’s great powers. Ahmadinejad’s strong anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric has persuaded many that moderation in Iran is truly dead and that Iran is a threat to the West. Similarly, Bush, who had campaigned as something of an isolationist, was able to use the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to launch an aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East, a policy whose self-stated aims are the democratisation of the Middle East and thus the elimination of threats to Israel and American interests.
"Bush has also abandoned the US’s usual position of maintaining the moral high ground, and has used similar threatening, confrontational and aggressive rhetoric, stating that "You are either with us or against us" on fighting terrorism, and labelling North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” In both countries, this rhetoric serves to shore up their respective power bases, which are inclined to nationalism and viewing foreign policy issues in black and white.
"Perhaps the greatest similarity between these two leaders is that their success or failure lies in the deserts of Arabia and the steppes of Asia. Both men know we are entering a new historical epoch, and both seem determined, however misguided their methodology, to put their country’s national interests above all else, whatever the risk to the rest of the world. Bush has continually rejected the notion of speaking with Iran’s president and generally rejected the idea of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear aspirations. It is time for citizens of both countries to recognise how extremist their leaders have become, and what a danger to the world and to their own security such nationalism and extremism can be. The citizens of Iran and the US should recognise that they are not all that different, that they in many ways share the same aspirations and goals, and that while their cultures are quite different, they have leaders who share remarkably similar traits. It is this common ground that will open up dialogue and prevent the unthinkable.
Reprinted with permission Common Ground News Service
Read the Entire David Ignatius Column, Ahmadinejad’s Gauntlet: The U.S. and Iran Need Each Other Too Much Not to Find Accommodation
Washington Post, 24 September ,2006