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Cheney's Long-Lost Twin


By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
www.nytimes.com/ontheground

Could Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be twins separated at birth?

The U.S. vice president and Iranian president, each the No. 2 in his country, certainly seem to be working together to create conflict between the two nations. Theirs may be the oddest and perhaps most dangerous partnership in the world today.

Both men are hawks who defy the international community, scorn the U.N. and are unpopular at home because of incompetence and recklessness, and each finds justification in the extremism of the other.

Iranians refer to their new political radicals as neoconservatives, with multiple layers of deliberate irony, notes Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University, adding: "The hotheads around President Ahmadinejad's office and the U.S. foreign policy radicals who cluster
around Vice President Cheney.s office, listen to each other, cite each others' statements and goad each other to new excesses on either side."

So one of the perils in the final 18 months of the Bush administration is that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Ahmadinejad will escalate provocations, ending up with airstrikes by the U.S. against Iranian nuclear sites.

Already we're seeing a series of leaks about Iran that echo leaks in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The reports say that Iran is turning a blind eye to Al Qaeda, is using Hezbollah to wage a proxy war against U.S. forces in Iraq, is transferring bomb-making skills to Iraq insurgents and is handing out armor-piercing bullets to fighters in Iran and Afghanistan so as to kill more Americans.

Yet the jingoists aren't all in our government: These leaks may well all be accurate, for Mr. Ahmadinejad is a perfect match for Mr. Cheney in his hawkishness and contempt for the international community.

It's worrying that Iran has just recalled its most able diplomat, Javad Zarif, ambassador to the U.N., and sent him out to pasture as an academic. Hard-liners always hated Mr. Zarif; goons from a mysterious Iranian security agency detained me on my last trip to Tehran and accused me of being a C.I.A. or Mossad spy, apparently because they were trying to
get dirt to use against Mr. Zarif (who had given me my visa).

Mr. Zarif's departure last week suggests that Mr. Ahmadinejad doesn't plan to solve his nuclear confrontation with the West through diplomacy.

So the danger is that the pragmatists on both sides will be sidelined, while the extremists will embolden and empower each other. The ultimate decision-makers may be President Bush and the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Mr. Cheney may find a sympathetic ear when he makes an argument to Mr. Bush that goes like this:

How can we leave a nuclear Iran as our legacy? Tehran's arms program will encourage Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to seek nuclear weapons as well, and then there's the worst-case scenario that Iran actually wants to destroy Tel Aviv. We just can't bet on Iranian restraint.

These are real arguments, but a strike is no solution. For starters, it would delay the Iranian nuclear program by only about three years, and when it came back, the regime might be more likely than ever to use the weapons. And for Mr. Bush to launch a third war against a Muslim country would undermine Islamic moderates and strengthen radicals around the
world.

Iran is also more complex and sophisticated than it pretends to be, and the fact is that standard deterrence has constrained it. Iran has a huge stockpile of chemical weapons, and the U.S. intelligence community suspects that it has sleeper agents in the U.S. who could be activated for terrorism. But we have deterred Iran from unleashing terror attacks against our homeland, and the best bet for eliminating the threat altogether is the collapse of Iran's own neocons under the weight of their incompetence.

A recent opinion poll in Iran found that 70 percent of Iranians want to normalize relations with the U.S., and 61 percent oppose the current Iranian system of government. Any visitor to Iran knows that it is, at a people-to-people level, the most pro-American Muslim country in the
region, and the regime is as out of touch and moribund as the shah's was in the late 1970s.

The ayatollahs' only hope is that we will rescue them with a military strike, which would cement them in place for many years to come. But look out, because that's what may happen if bilateral relations are driven by those jingoistic twins, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Ahmadinejad.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof.s blog,
www.nytimes.com/ontheground

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