If you did not know beforehand that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadine-jad was one of the most important men in the most neuralgic region of the world—and, by extension, in the world itself—you’d never have guessed it.  One of the few things he has in common with President George W. Bush is a forgettable face.  In both cases, the bland façade conceals men of simple but deep convictions with a millenarian streak.  Both believe that their actions are divinely guided and that they are personally assisting history’s linear progression to a grand eschatological finale.

Their practical objectives are fundamentally different, however, and make a direct clash between them hard to avoid.

For all his lapses into utopian kitsch—democratizing the Middle East, leaving no child behind, etc.—in world affairs, Mr. Bush is, by now, a status quo politician.  Like Asquith’s Liberals before 1914, or Brezhnev’s successors a quarter of a century ago, he pays lip service to the buzz of a changing world while knowing that any real change would entail the weakening of his country’s relative power.  Mr. Bush would like to return to the international order as it had been in the years immediately preceding September 11: a unipolar system justified by the neoliberal ideology of democracy, human rights, and free markets, in which America could respond to any conceivable challenge to her “leadership” with a prompt projection of raw power.  Since that is no longer possible, and given the absence of a realist doctrine that would offer a reliable match between this country’s interests and her capabilities, the best he can hope for is to manage threats and challenges as they come, ad hoc and day to day.

The impossibility, futility, and underlying iniquity of the neoconservative “vision” have been elaborated in these pages for some years.  The speed with which the project has unraveled, a mere decade since William Kristol and Robert Kagan memorably exulted in “our” (i.e., their) benevolent global hegemony, is nevertheless remarkable.  China and Russia today, with India soon to follow, assert and defend their interests in the manner that the late Deng Xiaoping and former Russian president Boris Yeltsin would have deemed far too bold.  Lesser detractors are growing ever more numerous.  They are often hostile, unpredictable, and difficult to deal with, from Kim Jong Il and Hugo Chavez to the reborn Taliban and the insurgents in Iraq.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, stricto sensu, is a “lesser detractor,” but he presents a formidable challenge to Mr. Bush.  He is a sworn enemy of the status quo and leads a country bigger and more populous than Britain, France, or Italy.  He has several other trumps up his sleeve: oil; an advanced nuclear program; Hezbollah; a growing popularity in the Muslim world; considerable influence over Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere in the region; and a unifying ideology based on the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The most important Iranian asset, by far, is oil.  The country is a major producer capable of affecting the price of crude with its own policies and, in extremis, shutting off its production altogether and crippling that of its neighbors across the Gulf—Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait—which could trigger a global economic meltdown.  Iran is currently exporting over 2.4 million barrels of crude oil each day, and her earnings are projected to hit $54 billion this year.  Such enormous revenues enable Iran to do all that she does to enhance her power and standing.

The most expensive of those activities, and the most worrisome for the rest of the world, is Iran’s nuclear program.  Ahmadinejad came to power in June of last year promising to defy the world on this issue, and he is successfully resisting all demands for the establishment of international control over his nuclear assets.  But while he continues to claim that the purpose of his country’s program is peaceful, the Europeans, and even Russia and China—Iran’s key trading partners long willing to give her the benefit of the doubt—are having second thoughts.  They joined Britain, France, and the United States in approving a U.N. Security Council resolution on July 31 demanding that Tehran suspend its enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear fuel by August 31 or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions.  That was the first time that the international body has legally required Iran to halt her enrichment of uranium.  Ahmadinejad promptly rejected the resolution, however, and his top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, declared that Iran’s nuclear activities would be expanded rather than curtailed.  The planned expansion “includes all nuclear technology including the string of centrifuges,” he said, referring to a battery of uranium-enrichment facilities that is scheduled to be installed at the main plant in the city of Natanz.  Depending on the level of enrichment, treated uranium can be used to generate electricity or to build nuclear weapons.

That Ahmadinejad intends to pursue the latter option is not only possible but, in the opinion of intelligence analysts and International Atomic Energy Agency experts, increasingly probable.  While it is reasonable for Iran to build nuclear reactors to free up oil for export, Ahmadinejad’s insistence on Iran making her own nuclear fuel to power the reactors makes no economic sense.  Fresh fuel for the reactors is available cheaply and reliably on the open market, notably from Russia, while the nuclear technology Iran is trying to master is very expensive.  But from his point of view, nuclear weapons make sense as the ultimate deterrent against any future “Operation Iranian Freedom,” especially with U.S. forces present on his borders to the west (Iraq) and northeast (Afghanistan).  In addition, their possession would be a powerful means of asserting Iran’s claim to be the most important power in the region.

Even if allowed to proceed with his nuclear program unhindered, Ahmadinejad will need at least seven—and, more likely, ten—years to build his first device.  For an immediate means of applying calibrated violence in pursuit of limited political objectives, he can rely on the services of Hezbollah.

While it would be simplistic to treat the “Party of God” as a direct extension of Iran’s global network, Hezbollah’s relationship to Tehran may be compared to that of Angola’s or Mozambique’s “national liberation movements” of the 1970’s to Cuba, or Cuba’s to the Soviet Union.  Hezbollah is autonomous, but it is not independent.  Its unexpected attacks on Israeli targets inside Israel on July 12 that triggered a major international crisis would not have taken place had the leaders in Tehran not wanted them to happen.  Iran’s likely purpose was to help divert attention from the nuclear issue and to demonstrate her growing influence in the region.  Tehran has basked in Hezbollah’s ability to defy the Israeli army and claimed credit for the crisis that has weakened Iran’s traditional regional rivals, while formally denying any direct involvement.

The Arab world is aware of the connection between Iran and Hezbollah, and it is uncomfortable with the implications.  Its ambivalence may be gleaned from the reaction of several key Arab governments—notably that of Saudi Arabia—to the mayhem in Lebanon.  While condemning Israeli attacks on civilian targets, Riyadh also expressed disapproval of the “irresponsible” attacks that had invited such disproportionate retaliation.  Even the 22-nation Arab League has criticized Hezbollah.  This does not mean that the Arabs have suddenly softened in their view of the “Zionist entity,” but the League’s condemnation of Hezbollah for “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts” was clearly aimed at Iran.  It was the first time that the Arab world has criticized any Muslim entity attacking Israel, and it reflects the latent tension between Shiite and Sunni Muslims on a wider scale.

The difference between Riyadh and Tehran may be compared to that between Stalin and Trotsky 70 years ago.  The Saudis are reminiscent of the Soviets during the Cold War: They are oppressively conservative at home, while following a dual-track policy abroad.  On the one hand, they behave as a “normal” state that feigns regular relations with its Western partners, while, on the other, they are surreptitiously exporting hard-line cadres and financing fifth columnists and fellow travelers in order to subvert “the World of War.”

Ahmadinejad, by contrast, acts in a manner reminiscent of the Soviet state in its early years.  He favors direct action in pursuit of a permanent Islamic revolution.  In the short-to-medium term, he wants to establish a Shiite-dominated domain in the region that would extend to the Mediterranean in the West.  The size of the Shiite population outside Iran provides him with a powerful constituency.  They constitute an absolute majority in the Gulf region, over two thirds in Iraq, the plurality in Lebanon, and they feel emboldened by the events of recent years.

The most momentous event of the decade was the fall of Saddam Hussein.  Effected by American military might and paid mainly in American blood and treasure, the removal of Iran’s archenemy is widely perceived in the Middle East as a free gift to Iraq’s Shiites that has changed the regional equation in favor of Tehran.  Ahmadinejad’s friends now control the Iraqi government; in the case of Iraq’s interior ministry, his proxies do so directly.

The people who run Iraq with the blessing of the Bush administration are temperamentally and ideologically not very different from their coreligionists in Lebanon who are condemned in Washington as terrorists.  Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki fiercely condemned the Israeli action in Lebanon, using language harsher than that of any other Arab leader.  During a subsequent visit to Washington, he embarrassed his hosts by calling for an immediate cease-fire and refraining from any criticism of Hezbollah.  Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi accused Israel of carrying out “massacres.”  Top Shiite spiritual leader—arguably the most powerful man in the country—Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani went even further by warning that “Islamic nations will not forgive the entities that hinder a cease-fire,” which was a clear reference to the United States.

Some advocates of the war in Iraq had argued that the fall of Saddam would bring to power in Baghdad a government not only more friendly to the United States but less hostile to Israel, and perhaps willing to act as a catalyst of changing attitudes in the Arab world.  The crisis in Lebanon has shown the futility of such hopes.  In their hostility to Israel and de facto support for Hezbollah, Iraqi politicians are asserting their distance from Washington more boldly than at any time in the past three years.  Ironically, this is one of the few issues on which the leaders of Iraq’s three national communities express full agreement.  Sunnis have also condemned the Israeli action, and even the Kurds, usually considered America’s sole reliable partners in the country, have joined the chorus, with President Jalal Talabani expressing his “extreme anger and sorrow.”

In the aftermath of the crisis in Lebanon, Iraq is seen more clearly than before as Ahmadinejad’s insurance policy against any action Mr. Bush may contemplate against him.  The country has been an American quagmire for some time, but if the Shiite majority were to end its cooperation with the occupation authority, the situation would become utterly unmanageable.  In view of Hezbollah’s performance in Lebanon, the United States should entertain no illusions about Iran’s ability to use her regional proxies boldly and effectively.

The events of the summer of 2006 have increased Iran’s regional stature and Ahmadinejad’s personal prestige, while diminishing American influence in the Middle East and making hostility to Israel probably more universal and intense than at any other time since 1948.  Hez-bollah’s ability to avoid annihilation by Israel indicates the limits of conventional military power.  Furthermore, as one Arab analyst has noted, the Iran-Hezbollah axis has hijacked the Palestinian cause and redefined the Arab-Israeli conflict to the point where it is evident that it is “Iran’s and not Washington’s traditional allies in the region that hold the key to solving the crisis.”

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s current objective is to convince George W. Bush that regional stability is impossible without his acquiescence, and that the cost of trying to isolate and intimidate Iran may prove prohibitive.  Theoretically, it would be in the American interest to give Iran a vested interest in a new regional-stability framework.  The problem is that a bullish, increasingly self-confident Mr. Ahmadinejad would demand a price for his stake in the project that Mr. Bush cannot and will not pay.  The problem is real, and it remains insoluble for as long as America remains a direct and therefore vulnerable participant in the affairs of the Middle East.