What Iranians Least Expect

If you think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said some crazy things, none comes close to this: "If the worst came to worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground ... " That was Mao Zedong in 1957. If you find the idea of an Iranian nuclear program unsettling, put yourself in the shoes of policymakers in 1964, the year that China tested a nuclear bomb.

At the time, China was probably the most aggressive country in the world. As historian Francis J. Gavin recounts, Mao's regime had fought a bloody war against the United States in Korea and almost entered another one over Taiwan. It had attacked India in 1962 and threatened several other Asian countries, like Indonesia. It was supporting North Vietnam and the Viet Cong insurgency in the South. It actively aided violent revolutionary groups around the world, including Latin America and the Caribbean. Mao's gruesome callousness toward human life extended to his own people. "Half of China may well have to die," he declared as he launched the Great Leap Forward. (He didn't quite succeed, but for a while the "Guinness Book of World Records" listed him as history's greatest mass murderer, for having caused the deaths of 26.3 million people.) Compared with all this, Iran today looks positively normal.

Of course it is not normal, and Ahmadinejad is not a normal leader. Iran is ruled by a repressive clique that has armed Hizbullah, destabilized Lebanon and Iraq, and defied and deceived international nuclear inspectors. Ahmadinejad has made a series of grotesque comments. But if we convince ourselves that Iran is an existential threat, one that must be stopped immediately and at all costs, we will fail. If we turn this into a game of chicken, we will lose.

Right now, Iran is riding high. Oil revenues are rolling in, amounting to about $55 billion last year. Its neighbors are severely weakened. Iraq is in chaos; Afghanistan and Pakistan are preoccupied with a resurgent Taliban; the Lebanese government is under great strain; the gulf states are scared. Most important, the United States is tied down, its influence and political capital in the region at an all-time low.

Ahmadinejad is using this moment to press his advantage. He has outflanked Arab regimes on the issue of Israel and Palestine, speaking in more confrontational terms than they dare (for fear of Washington). He knows that the Sunni Arab governments don't like him, so he has gone directly to their people. It's working.

Ahmadinejad is also turning Iran's nuclear program into a matter of Third World pride. Taking advantage of the global atmosphere of anti-Americanism, he is claiming that the United States is determined to prevent a developing country from moving ahead technologically. Again, it's working. Fully 118 countries signed onto Iran's cause at the recent nonaligned summit.

Instead of getting scared and spooked, America should view Tehran with a healthy dose of calm and confidence. Iran's fortunes will wane. Oil prices might head downward; Iraq could become less of a burden one way or the other; Arab regimes will get more assertive in responding to the rise of Iranian power. Washington could take the initiative on Lebanon and Palestine, which would vastly improve the political atmosphere.

The administration must also develop a set of creative options short of military strikes--which would only delay, not end, Iran's nuclear program--in case Iran does not agree to stop reprocessing. Other countries will not go along with many of the toughest economic sanctions--and it's not clear they would work anyway. One measure that would sting would be a widespread travel ban on Iran's officials. (That would be the end of the diplomats' conference circuit, not to mention trips to Dubai for money laundering.) Iran is unlikely to agree to become dependent on imported nuclear fuel. The second best alternative might be a permanent inspections system in Iran, ensuring that its civilian program is not weaponized.

Watching Ahmadinejad at a private meeting last week, I was struck by how little he conformed to the picture of a madman. He was smug, even arrogant, sometimes offensive, but always calm and intelligent. If we're going to outsmart him, we need clever, compelling arguments of our own. Instead we have tended to threaten, bully and intimidate. No wonder he's winning the public diplomacy.

One way to change the game is to play to our strengths. Iran's hard-liners don't want good relations with the United States. Iranians have been taught for a generation now that Washington hates them, doesn't want relations with their country and tries to isolate them in the world. What if President Bush publicly offered to open an embassy in Tehran and begin student exchanges with young Iranians? In a country that is yearning for contact with the outside world, it might put the mullahs on the defensive.

In 1964, many people argued for a preemptive strike against China. Wiser heads prevailed. But even President John F. Kennedy had worried that from the moment China went nuclear "it would dominate South East Asia." In fact, far from dominating it, China's bomb scared Southeast Asia into a closer association with the United States. Today, Chinese influence in the region is great and growing--but that's because of its economic heft, not its nukes. Iran is ruled by a failed regime that cannot modernize the country and is instead seeking a cheap path to influence. It didn't work for the communists in Russia or China and, if we keep our cool, it won't work for the mullahs in Tehran.