Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders make so many shocking statements that many focus only their words. But the real action and cause for concern lie in their deeds. Iran is embarking on an increasingly aggressive campaign of diplomacy that would be replete with irony were it not so dangerous.
Let's examine Iran's actions last month alone.
On October 14 in Vienna, OPEC ministers unanimously elected Iran's oil minister, Masoud Mirkazemi, to chair the organization in 2011. For the first time since its Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran will hold the rotating presidency of OPEC, comprising twelve oil-producing nations. This decision is as puzzling as it is disturbing. It comes at the same time that the U.S., European Union and other countries are increasing pressure on Iran and its nuclear weapons program in part by targeting its petroleum sales and imports.
On the same day that OPEC was voting, Ahmadinejad, during his deliberately provocative visit to Lebanon, was praising Hezbollah, which Iran backs and arms, and declaring to cheering crowds, "The Zionists will eventually disappear." He did this just a few miles from Israel's border.
The following week Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met with senior Iranian leaders in Tehran (Ahmadinejad welcomed Chavez's support against Iran's western "bullies"), and, for the first time, Iran sent a representative to a meeting in Rome of an international group that convenes regularly to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Maliki's meeting in Tehran is particularly worrisome. It follows the behind-the-scenes deal brokered by Iran to put a pro-Iranian government in Iraq and move Iraq away from the West. Iran was instrumental in forming an alliance between Maliki, who is seeking a second term, and Iraq's powerful radical Shia clerical leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, who staunchly opposes American presence in Iraq. Iran favors a religious, Shia-dominated government in Iraq. The deal, which Tehran started pursuing seriously in early September, involved Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a senior Hezbollah leader and the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Al-Quds Brigades.
Ahmadinejad enlisted Assad's support during a meeting at Damascus airport on his way to deliver his deliberately provocative (a tactic he uses often) speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23rd. Amid the vile, unfounded accusations Ahmadinejad hurled against the U.S. and Israel during that speech, he made an announcement that went unnoticed: Iran "will host a conference to study terrorism and the means to confront it." This from the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Tehran uses the UN in many other ways to pursue diplomatic aggression. In April the UN "elected" Iran (by "acclamation," no open vote) to its Commission on the Status of Women, giving a four-year seat on the influential human rights body to a country where, by law, the value of a woman is half that of a man, a woman found guilty of adultery is punished by stoning and lashings are required for women judged "immodest." This commission is "dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women," according to its website. Yet Iran, of all countries, will take part in its review of nations that violate women's rights, preparation of reports detailing their failings, and monitoring of their success in improving women's equality.
Iran's "election" to the commission came just days after the U.S. led a successful effort to block Iran's high-profile bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
And we should not forget that Iran actively sought the Asia "temporary" (two-year) seat on the UN Security Council in 2008 (won by Japan). No doubt, Iran will try again.
Tehran's global outreach is intensifying at the same time that escalating economic sanctions are taking a toll on Iran internally. Iran's security forces are on the alert for a new domestic threat: strikes and civil unrest provoked by planned cuts in fuel subsidies that could increase economic hardships in a country already beset by high inflation and widespread unemployment. The language being used by security force officials echoes warnings they issued before they crushed the protests that followed the June 2009 election.
The international community must pay careful attention to this troubling pattern of Iran's aggressive diplomacy and be wary of Iran's real motives, such as those displayed in Lebanon and by Tehran's role in installing an anti-West government in Iraq. Iran's leaders are seeking legitimacy, influence and support abroad, while they are failing at home. The West, led by the U.S., must prevent the Iranian regime from gaining on the international scene what it is losing on the domestic front.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Jewish Week