Washington pundits may not understand Iran, but they are right about one issue: Tehran does pose a real challenge to the U.S.-centric global political system. Unfortunately for the U.S., Washington does not understand the nature of the challenge, and its response is just empowering Tehran. (Clues: it's not about nuclear arms or religion.)
Washington tough guys stand facing Iran with that "deer in the headlights" look. Terrified of losing World War II all over again, they frankly have no clue about what Tehran is up to. The analogy to WWII is critical: pity any state stupid enough to launch a blitzkrieg against the U.S. They would be wiped out. The U.S. today can fight and win a WWII-style war against any conceivable enemy without even getting a Congressional appropriation.
But the idea of Ahmadinejad as the new Hitler is just a Netanyahu sound bite, slyly selected because he knows Americans well enough to realize that Americans are still, after all these years, obsessed with Hitler and utterly confused about the world that actually exists today, almost a century later. Raving about blitzkriegs may be a brilliant strategy for conning Congress, but it has nothing to do with Iran's challenge, which is far more sophisticated, subtle, and enduring. More seriously, Iran's challenge will be played out on a battlefield most Washington cold warriors (or "empire-builders," if you prefer a more current epithet) hardly know exists, where victory will require the careful and sustained use of "weapons" the tough guys either ignore or sneer at. Their ignorance is America's peril.
In a revealing critique of U.S. misunderstanding of Iran, The Race for Iran website quoted School of Oriental and African Studies academic Arshin Adib-Moghaddam as follows:
there is no over-dependency on the west that would yield a legitimacy crisis (as in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali’s Tunisia and under the shah) and there is no subservience to Israeli demands. The Iranian government’s strident emphasis on “national independence” continues to garner support within Iranian society. [Arshin Adib-Moghaddam in The Guardian 11/22/11 as quoted in Flynt and Hillary Leverett's The Race for Iran 11/28/11.]
While Adib-Moghaddam's point concerned the value of independence for Iranian stability, Iran's avoidance of "over-dependence" on the West also goes to the heart of Iran's challenge to the U.S.-centric global political system. Washington, provoked endlessly by Netanyahu and his crowd, sees the Iranian challenge as a military threat to be smashed down. Washington is correct that Iran poses a threat, but it is not military: it is ideological.
Were the Iranian ideological challenge along the lines of a "Shi'i crescent," one might be somewhat concerned or just laugh. But to the degree that the Iranian ideological challenge amounts to an invitation to every other country on earth to stand up for national independence from U.S.-centric globalization, the Iranian challenge is important because of its internal logic (why should other countries accept discriminatory rules thought up in Washington?), its attractiveness to...every other country, and the increasing ability of other countries to take assert their desire for independence.
Washington's demands for obedience fall flat in a post-Cold War world where no traditional enemy exists, where threats require reasoning together rather than the use of force, and where Washington's uncooperative attitude (undercutting efforts to protect the environment, punishing countries for wanting freedom to find their own paths, touting democracy when convenient) frequently makes it the obstacle to problem resolution rather than the leader. Iran, meanwhile, wins simply by pointing out the obvious: the U.S.-centric world is really not being managed very well. Washington unfortunately does not have the diplomatic skill to put Tehran to the test by calling its bluff and demanding that it offer constructive solutions. The more Washington discriminates against Tehran while pushing around those countries that do offer constructive solutions to problems Washington cannot solve, the better Tehran looks. The rest of the world is not faced with choosing between the U.S. and Iran but between unnecessary subservience to a U.S. leader that is faltering and the idea of independence.
Washington's treatment of this challenge as a threat rather than an opportunity to reform its outdated "Cold-War superpower" behavior is what makes Iran a significant player. Washington is only undermining U.S. national security by allowing Tehran to portray it as the global opponent of national aspirations for what might be called "state democracy." It is ironic and self-defeating for Washington to pose as the champion of democracy for individuals while acting as the self-imposed leader--by force as needed--of an increasingly centralized global political order based on rules written not by democratic consensus but in Washington: Washington touts democracy for individuals but harshly punishes states that aspire to inter-state equality. The blatant discrimination of Washington's nuclear rules for Israel and Tehran or its denial of democratic rights for Palestinians only play into Tehran's hands. The more rigid Washington's self-centered behavior, the more Russia, China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and everyone else will start thinking that system challenger Iran has a point.