I don’t know which is more tragic, really, the fact that the United States squandered a globeful of goodwill in the wake of Sept. 11, or that with this blank check against “terror” we were only one letter off in the name of the nation we deemed a threat to the world. Whereas Iraq has devolved quite spectacularly into the debacle of our time, Iran’s pseudo-theocratic oligarchy now looms as a menace so imminent and so full of lunacy that the situation would be genuinely hilarious, if it wasn’t so terrifying.

I’m not talking here of the outrageous comments made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concerning the vast conspiracy of the West to destroy the Middle East and Muslims everywhere or even his remarkable insistence that Israel and Jews should be wiped clean off the map, whether literally or politically – we’ve heard similar types of statements before from the mouths of equally mesmerizing and deranged dictators. What troubles me most is his now-infamous statement last week at Columbia University, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. ... We do not have this phenomenon.”

Ahmadinejad later seemed to make light of the statements, but experts turned to elements as minute as his facial muscles to suggest that he was dead serious about his remarks and startled at the boos and shocked laughter that rained down upon him. Ahmadinejad may claim disbelief in the concept of homosexuality – he certainly wouldn’t be the only one – but he certainly believes it enough to persecute self-professed homosexuals throughout his country.

“There are criminal laws on the books in Iran that allows for people to be killed for being homosexual,” said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, quoted in, of all places, FOX News.

It’s important to remind Mr. Ahmadinejad that he is not the first, nor, sadly, will he be the last dictator to rise to power on the back of radical nationalism and ardent xenophobia. He’s not unique, and his supposed struggle is not unique. Yet this particular comment does strike me as singular and horrifying: the outright denial of existence of a way of life, or, if you insist, a belief system.

This issue is not a partisan or religious one, and not one of “gay rights,” but something far simpler – the fundamental refusal of the most basic facet of human liberty – self-identification. If who you say you are is not only officially forbidden, but pathologically unrecognized, you are utterly disempowered, vulnerable and alone.

Even atrocious autocrats like Hitler, Idi Amin and Pol Pot never actively engaged this approach. Hitler was so obsessed with the “Jewishness” of his conquered populations that a rigid bloodline-formula was introduced. Amin tossed all “Asians” out of tiny Uganda because he believed that God had instructed him to do so in a dream. Pol Pot segmented his society into “‘full rights’ [base] people, candidates and depositees” so as to eliminate those who did not fit into the new agrarian Maoist utopia.

These leaders ruled by the outright fear and persecution of the named Other. Modern Iran, meanwhile, is a country at odds with itself and the world, fighting a war against an enemy it refuses to acknowledge.

Along with this dangerous precedent grumbling in a land across the world, however, there comes a crucial message for our society. Whenever you stand on such politicized issues like “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships” or “hate-crime legislation,” it’s essential to remember that public debate, however heated or violent, promotes knowledge, and knowledge almost always gives way to acceptance.

I consider Ahmadinejad’s reign of homosexual denial akin to the Nazi book-burning fetes of manipulated ignorance, a deliberate campaign of control leading to radicalization. And as has been proven so many times throughout history, though the groups on the fringes of society suffer first, they are never the last. The subjugation, persecution and elimination of undesirables and outsiders of every kind lead inevitably to the systematic deconstruction of the free “mainstream.”

In the coming months and perhaps years, the world will have to address, honestly and bravely, with more than a bit of self-critical introspection on the part of the U.S., the growing threat that is Ahmadinejad’s Iran. I do not think that war is inevitable, in fact I believe that for all of his blustering and saber-rattling Ahmadinejad has been his own worst enemy in attempting to goad the world into a conflict.

The shrewd leader has played his hand too early in this global game of the highest stakes; he has exposed far too much of his own ideology too soon. Ludicrous statements calling for the extermination of Jews and the denial of homosexuality win favor in extremist circles, but they similarly unite all those moderates who don’t believe a kippah marks someone for death and know that The Wizard of Oz, the YMCA, Barbra Streisand and Ahmadinejad’s finely-tailored, open-neck suits sure as hell weren’t made by anyone straight.