Washington Watch: Does Ahmadinejad have a Saddam complex?

The Iranian president risks repeating the late Iraqi leader’s mistake: convincing his enemies that he’s too dangerous to ignore and must be removed.

Mohammad Reza Rahimi with Ahmadinejad 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mohammad Reza Rahimi with Ahmadinejad 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Remember how neighborhood bully Saddam Hussein hinted about his WMD arsenal, shut out UN inspectors and raised suspicions that he was building nukes to go with his chemical and biological weapons? Even his generals believed him. Worse, so did George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Shoot first and ask questions later, they said; don’t wait for the mushroom cloud. They weren’t taking any chances that he might be bluffing – which he was.
It is looking like déjà vu all over again. Some of the Bush hawks and others, notably in the pro-Israel community, are saying this time we’re sure and can’t take any chances with Iran. One of the loudest voices is Bush’s former UN ambassador John Bolton, who despite Cheney’s support failed to convince Bush to bomb Iran, so now he’s going after Barack Obama. Look for Bolton, (who has visions of running for president next year) to be a frequent witness at House hearings on Iran as the GOP leadership tries to paint Obama as soft on Teheran.
The compulsively blustery Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, like Saddam a decade ago, may go overboard in boasting about his military prowess.
“Saddam had no WMD but he had to have people believe he did, to the point where he lost his country. His first priority was to deter Iran, and then to deter the United States,” said Keith Weissman, an Iran analyst. “But there are differences. For Ahmadinejad, command is not from the top straight down, as it was in Saddam’s Iraq. He can’t fool his generals the way Saddam did.”
Military policy is in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; he sets broad strategic policy and has his own advisers in addition to Ahmadinejad, some of whom are the president’s rivals.
The parallels may not be precise, but Ahmadinejad risks repeating Saddam’s mistake: convincing his enemies that he’s too dangerous to ignore and must be removed. The Iranians consider Israel unpredictable and dangerous, but feel Obama, like Bush, doesn’t want war and will keep the Israelis – who they taunt as “too weak” and afraid to attack – on a short leash.
THAT CAN be a risky game. Hans Blix, the Swedish former head of UN inspectors in Iraq, said Saddam was “an utterly ruthless, brutal man” who thought he could outwit the West and “misjudged things.” Ahmadinejad & Co. have been boasting about weapon “advancements,” and saying mass graves are already being dug for American invaders.
Iran has been developing its own military-industrial sector (with a lot of help from North Korea and China, among others). One analyst told me he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the technology Israel has sold to China has been repackaged and sold to Iran.
Iran claims to have developed a drone bomber Ahmadinejad dubbed the “ambassador of death,” its own air defense system “just as good” as Russia’s advanced S-300, and ballistic missiles that can strike Tel Aviv as well as all US bases in the region. The Iranian navy boasts the “world’s fastest” missile boats and 11 stealthy home-built submarines with homemade missiles and torpedoes.
Whether it is firing up the Bushehr nuclear plant or announcing new weapons systems, Iran’s goal is to show that sanctions are meaningless and it can be self-sufficient in producing modern, advanced weapons, even if it is not true.
For now, Iran’s greatest threat may be its terror network – Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and others – that can wreak much damage on Israel, American interests and neighboring states. To some extent they are independent players, but they cannot afford to ignore the wishes of Iran, which has provided them with tens of thousands of missiles and other weapons along with training and financing. Iran could also give some terror group radioactive materials for a ‘dirty’ bomb that could not be traced to Teheran clearly enough to bring significant retaliation.
Iran’s nuclear program apparently suffered a serious – though probably temporary – setback with the Stuxnet computer virus attack on its centrifuges, adding to the uncertainty about the immediacy of the nuclear threat.
The boasting is also intended to frighten weaker neighbors and exploit anti- Israel and anti-American feelings. Just as important, Ahmadinejad wants to convince the Iranian people their government is too strong to be overthrown – from the inside as well as the outside.
WikiLeaked cables showed Arab leaders would like the US or Israel to take out the Iranian regime, but only if it is completely destroyed; not by merely having its nuclear facilities crippled. The Iranian opposition, however, wants to be the ones to change the government, not outsiders who would leave them looking like collaborators instead of patriots.
How much is bluff and how much is real? Is the much-hyped Iranian military prowess a Potemkin arsenal? Maybe – and if so, Ahmadinejad could end up like his late neighbor, Saddam, whose braggadocio cost him his regime and his life.
The bottom line is best summed up by Jon B. Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “The real issue is how willing are you to be wrong, and what are the consequences of being so? Everything else is commentary.”