Gauntlets are tossed

By Jim Hoagland Published:

By Jim Hoagland

WASHINGTON -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has abandoned the fog of negotiation to confront the United States and Europe directly over Irans nuclear and political ambitions. He thus sets historys tectonic plates moving.

Two visible changes suggest how far-reaching this conflict is becoming: First, Europeans, not Americans, are the primary immediate targets of Irans recent gauntlet-hurling. Second, the Europeans are tossing the gauntlets back at him.

The Iranian firebrand seems to believe that intimidating Britain, France and Germany provides a surer path to nuclear weapons, the domination of Iraq and the destruction of Israel than does the softer-shoe approach of his ayatollah-predecessors. Ahmadinejad is the gift to President Bushs diplomats that keeps on giving.

An intent to menace may also have prompted the dispatch of mobs in Tehran and Damascus this month to burn a sudden abundance of Danish flags and to chant Death to Austria. That small country sits temporarily in the chair of the European Union presidency -- a fact you certainly had at your fingertips too.

European governments are responding with a firmness and resolve that might not have been predictable even a few months ago. Beset by terrorist bombs and ghetto riots in their cities, political murders of a Dutch filmmaker and others in the name of Allah, as well as the sacking of diplomatic outposts, Europeans are awakening to the possibility of a return to an era of global bipolar conflict that directly involves them.

Ahmadinejad has emerged for U.S. policymakers as the new face of the enemy that must be vanquished in the long war against Islamic extremism. White House officials suspect he sees himself as building a counterweight of radical Islamic power to resist American hegemony.

In that sense, Ahmadinejad fills a policy need. Saddam Hussein is so yesterday in the American political psyche. The Pentagons determination to fight wars that can be won by network-centric technology -- overcoming integrated air defense systems with bombing campaigns, for example -- is badly mismatched with the nasty insurgency in Iraq. But it would get new life in Iran.

Considering the troubles America faces in Iraq, I shudder to think that one of Don Rumsfelds life lessons is this: If you cannot solve a problem, enlarge it. But the Bush administration is embarked on a serious international diplomatic effort to isolate and contain Iran and its allies, and should be given credit for that. Hold the paranoia, at least for the moment.

The science of plate tectonics calls a moment such as this a convergent boundary movement. That is when two 50-mile thick shelves of earth move on a collision course. An important collateral shift is also apparent: While the distances between them remain large, the European and American plates of perception begin to move in the same direction again.

U.S. diplomacy is now adroit enough to benefit from Ahmadinejads sticking of the Iranian thumb in every available eye, including Russias. But more important to the new trans-Atlantic mood has been the spreading public concern in Europe about Islamic extremism, at home and abroad.

That concern is increasingly shared even by the Old Continents sizable Muslim minorities themselves. They have publicly distanced themselves from the embassy-burning, throat-cutting fanatics who claim to speak for their religion.

A European tendency to see Israel as the source of all Middle East evil must also adjust to the demise of the Palestine Liberation Organization and of a certain romantic vision of Palestinian nationalism at the hands of Hamas. That Islamic organization rejects peace negotiations and a two-state solution even more firmly than do Israeli hawks.

This is not to suggest that the happy days of threat-enforced Cold War unity are here again. Divergences will persist, as they do now over whether Western money can and should be channeled around a Hamas-led government to the Palestinian police. Europe is for channeling, the U.S is against. (Europe has the better case.)

But such differences become more tactical than strategic in the new policy environment. Old disagreements over Iraq become less important than the new agreements on Iran. When French President Jacques Chirac suggests even obliquely, as he did recently, that the use of nuclear weapons is a possible response to terrorism that threatens France, the grinding of tectonic plates can be heard beneath his words.

The new trans-Atlantic unity of purpose and perception is fragile. It must be maintained through effective consultation, disciplined diplomacy and the continued shelving by the Bush administration of its unilateralist impulses and its tendency to overreach. The alternative to diplomacy is a Rumsfeldian military expansion of the problem that no one -- not even Ahmadinejad -- should want.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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