I have to say that, although many call Ahmadinejad a kook or "insane," Iran is playing this high-stakes game quite well; indeed, rationally.
The context is important. I want to point out some elements that I've been harping on for a while. First, the Iraq War - especially, as we know, given pretty good evidence beforehand - was fated to become a disaster in myriad complex ways. The obvious ones play out daily in the news: poor planning, civil war, the increase of terror attacks, the incompetence of the Bush administration, etc. The less obvious one is the crisis of international legitimacy and leverage for the US combined with the domestic unpopularity of administration policies across the board, particularly in foreign affairs.
The administration has tried to play a complicated game implicating not only the various factions in Iraq, but also the strategic interests of Iran, India, Europe, Russia, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. The administration has proved incompetent to this task. So we have a hodge-podge of policies: temporary alliance with Pakistan, a nuclear deal with India (that leaves Pakistan wondering why they don't get the same deal), coy flirtation and snubbing of China, pressure on Iran, criticism of Russian democratic reforms, and "consultation" with European allies and the IAEA on what to do with Iran's nuclear program. They're all interrelated.
The venture in Iraq, however, has left the US with a globally unpopular disaster on its hands and no answers as to how to clean it up in a respectable, face-saving, and legitimate way. The US is in a real bind in regard to Iran now because it is in a much more difficult position to rally allies to the anti-Iran cause. Would-be allies are acting in their own interests, as does the US, and those interests may now only accidentally coincide with those of the US. The Bush administration has screwed too many countries in the Iraq affair for anyone to willingly sign on to a US-sponsored venture into Iran. This is part of the crisis of legitimacy.
Furthermore, as a practical matter, the US doesn't appear to have the resources to make legitimate threats to Iran. This is the problem of leverage. Ahmadinejad has been gambling on this being precisely the case: that the threats are empty. I, for one, think he's right. Note the Hersh article again. There's a line that says an attack on Iran would make southern Iraq "light up like a Christmas tree." An attack on Iran would likely mean the final defeat in the Iraq War. And don't think the UK, the only ally dumb enough to follow the US wholeheartedly into Iraq, doesn't know this given its presence in southern Iraq. The inability to defeat enemies in Iraq that the US doesn't really even know does not inspire confidence. I would be very concerned if I were a military officer stationed anywhere in Iraq, but especially the Shiite dominated areas in the event of an attack on Iran.
The second leverage issue - sanctions - is answered by Ahmadinejad indirectly:
"Despite being faced with sanctions for 27 years, restrictions, economic and propagation pressure, the Iranians have now achieved success in the field of basic cells, aerospace engineering and producing nuclear energy," Ahmadinejad said.The situation is such that the only realistic position I can see the US taking is of negotiator with Iran. Talks then legitimize the Iranian state as the real regional powerhouse it sees itself as being, and those talks are unlikely to be held on purely American terms. The Bush administration clearly does not want this. Here again, the administration creates a bind it can't think its way out of. But negotiation is the only solution unless we're truly willing to risk global catastrophe, and the basis of that negotiation is likely to begin from the acceptance of Iran's nuclear program.
Well-played, Ahmadinejad, you kook you.
See also Mike the Mad Biologist.