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Bush and Ahmadinejad's Game of Chicken

By Ian Bremmer & Willis Sparks

At first glance, George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad couldn't be more different.

Bush is the Ivy League-educated son of a former president. Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, rose to power from relative obscurity following a brief stint as Tehran's mayor. For many around the world, Bush is the living symbol of American military might. Ahmadinejad relishes his role as underdog president of an underdog nation.

But they also have a lot in common. Similarities in their temperaments and domestic political positions reveal why the standoff over Iran's nuclear program may eventually lead to military action.

Each president now faces considerable heat at home. Bush has taken hits over the war in Iraq from some who believe it should never have been waged and others who insist that poor planning cost him an opportunity to remake the politics of the Middle East. The botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, a growing federal budget deficit, and doubts over the administration's credibility and competence have added to his headaches. Bush hasn't enjoyed majority public approval in more than two years, the longest such stretch for any U.S. president in more than half a century. Can he live with a legacy that includes a nuclear Iran?

Ahmadinejad faces sharp criticism for his handling of Iran's rusting economy. The relative unknown swept to victory in June 2005 on promises to create jobs, lift millions from poverty and curb inflation. More than a year and half later, unemployment and the gap between rich and poor remain steady. Inflation has actually risen. Conservative pragmatists charge that Ahmadinejad's incendiary rhetoric allows foreigners to portray Iran's government as irrational and dangerous. His heavy-handed social policies invite derision from reformists. But resolute support for the nuclear program buoys his domestic popularity and helps him change the political subject.

Iran's ruling clerics, not the president, have ultimate responsibility for the country's foreign policy. But Ahmadinejad is now the public face of Iran's determination to join the nuclear club. The mullahs may not always approve of his belligerence, but pushing aside an elected president would come at a political cost.

Both presidents held relatively strong domestic political positions before their allies took heavy losses in recent elections. In November, Bush's party lost majority control of both houses of the U.S. Congress. Many fellow Republicans have distanced themselves from their president, particularly over the war in Iraq.

In December, divisions among Iranian hardliners ensured that Ahmadinejad's allies took a stunning beating in municipal elections, the first national balloting since Ahmadinejad won the presidency.

But the most crucial similarity between the two men is that, when it comes to foreign policy, both are temperamentally ill-suited to play anything but offense. Anyone who thought Bush would interpret the Republican election defeat and growing turmoil in Iraq as signs he should shy from a head-on fight with Tehran are surely startled that he has turned up the rhetorical heat on Iran's involvement in Iraq and its nuclear ambitions.

Iranian media coverage of Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, increasingly includes criticism of his handling of both the economy and foreign policy. An influential adviser to Iran's parliament has publicly charged that the president spends Iran's oil revenues "unreservedly and without much consideration."

Conservative official newspapers accuse him of pursuing an unnecessarily belligerent and reckless approach to relations with the West. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly did not meet with Ahmadinejad for more than two months late last year. All this in a country where the elite likes to keep its political disputes behind closed doors.

But those who expected a chastened Iranian president as the deadline approached for Iran's compliance with the latest U.N. Security Council resolution have ignored his history. Instead of calls for consultation and hints of compromise -- even if only to strengthen Iran's diplomatic hand -- Ahmadinejad offered only more defiance. Nuclear development in Iran "has no brakes," he has insisted. "The Iranian people ... will defend their rights. . . . They will resist the oppressors and will not concede one iota," he has added for emphasis.

On the nuclear issue, both men have raised the political cost of backing down. If Iran is the "world's primary state sponsor of terror," as Bush says, how can he allow the country to go nuclear? He promises to seek a diplomatic solution, but his insistence that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable" leaves U.S. negotiators with little to offer. If Iran will not concede one iota to its "oppressors," as Ahmadinejad has pledged, why should his government ever accept an internationally brokered compromise?

Politicians, even those as strong-willed as Bush and Ahmadinejad, sometimes reverse themselves. But the importance each has publicly attached to this issue ensures that he who blinks first will forfeit plenty of precious political capital.

In addition, both presidents have antagonized the very international actors, Russia and China, that might help forge a deal. The Bush administration has asked both countries to support coercive diplomacy aimed at forcing Iran to back down after ignoring their objections to war with Iraq and pointedly criticizing their foreign and domestic policies.

Ahmadinejad continues to provoke Israel and the United States, making it more difficult for Russia, China and others to defend Iran's right to a nuclear program. Why, Russian and Chinese diplomats must wonder, won't Ahmadinejad keep quiet and make their work a little easier?

We're left with a game of chicken. Bush and Ahmadinejad continue to drive toward a collision. Bush places his hands on the windshield to show the world he has no intention of turning. Ahmadinejad throws his steering wheel out the window.

The U.S. Congress may try to restrain Bush's drive toward confrontation, but its ability to prevent him from ordering air strikes is clearly limited. Iran's mullahs may eventually sideline Ahmadinejad, unless they calculate that a U.S. or Israeli air attack would rally Iranians to their government just as a sinking economy threatens the country's entire ruling class.

The best defense is a good offense? Not when offense is all you play.

And not when the international stakes are so high. Both men will give their diplomats time to work, but only to strengthen their positions for the moment when push may finally come to shove.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. He is the author of the recently published book "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall." Willis Sparks is an analyst in the global macro practice at Eurasia Group. They can be reached via e-mail at

(C) 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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