John McCain’s clearly planning to run his general election campaign on a theme of foreign policy experience. That will, of course, include an aggressive posture toward those countries perceived as enemies of the U.S. But as Time’s Joe Klein showed at a press conference on Tuesday, when it comes to Iran, one of the countries McCain has been most aggressive in speaking about, his knowledge base is limited.
McCain has been hitting Barack Obama hard recently over Obama’s expressed willingness to meet with leaders of certain countries, including Iran. McCain has been trying especially to link Obama’s posture to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a controversial figure for his extreme views on subjects like Israel and the Holocaust. But as Klein has pointed out before, a meeting with Iran’s leaders wouldn’t necessarily mean a meeting with Ahmadinejad, as he doesn’t hold the real power when it comes to Iran’s military, its nuclear research or its foreign policy.
At the press conference, Klein asked McCain about this. Here’s the ensuing exchange, according to the Huffington Post:
Klein: [I've] checked with the Obama campaign and he never, he’s never said — mentioned Ahmadinejad directly by name. He did say he would negotiate with the leaders, but as you know — Ayatollah …
McCain: (Laughing) Ahmadinejad is, was the leader.
Klein: But if —
McCain: Maybe I’m mistaken.
Klien: Maybe you are, because —
McCain: Maybe. I don’t think so though.
Klein: The Supreme, you know, according to most diplomatic experts, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the guy who’s in charge of Iranian foreign policy and also in charge of the nuclear program, but you never mention him. Do you, you know, um, why do you always keep talking about Ahmadinejad, since he doesn’t have power in that, in that realm?
McCain: Oh I think — Again, I respectfully disagree. When he’s the person that comes to the United Nations and declares his country’s policy is the extermination of the state of Israel, quote, in his words, wipe them off of the map, then I know that he is speaking for the Iranian government and articulating their policy and he was elected and is running for reelection as the leader of that country … I mean, the fact is he’s the acknowledged leader of that country and you may disagree, but that’s, uh, that’s your right to do so. But I think if you asked any average American who the leader of Iran is, I think they’d know. Or anyone who’s well-versed in the issue.
Klein’s point isn’t really an original one. In his stellar debunking of much of the rhetoric coming from Iran hawks, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria — no raving lefty — wrote, “When the relatively moderate Mohammed Khatami was elected president in Iran, American conservatives pointed out that he was just a figurehead. Real power, they said (correctly), especially control of the military and police, was wielded by the unelected ‘Supreme Leader,’ Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now that Ahmadinejad is president, they claim his finger is on the button.” And you can find similar information in a brief summary of Iran’s foreign policy structure produced by the Council on Foreign Relations, which notes:
Ahmadinejad has some influence over foreign policy — he appoints the cabinet and the head of the SNSC — but power remains mostly in the hands of the SNSC and the Supreme Leader. “[Ahmadinejad] is a small piece of the puzzle and can be influential on the fringes, but certainly not [by] steering Iranian foreign or nuclear policy,” [Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group] says.
Still, these inconvenient facts — and the public exposure of McCain’s ignorance on the subject — are unlikely to change the minds of those taking a hard-line stance toward Iran. After all, one of the right’s favorite experts on Islam, Bernard Lewis, wrote an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal in 2006 warning that Ahmadinejad might have some sort of “cataclysmic” event planned for Aug. 22 of that year. Lewis’ warning rested on the assumption that Ahmadinejad had the power to order such a thing. Obviously, nothing of the sort occurred.