President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is America’s most recent favorite person to hate, even more so this week because of what many Americans (including the president, presidential candidates, and even Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes) consider the audaciousness of his request to visit Ground Zero while on his now yearly trip to New York.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, in his interview with Mr. Pelley just before he left Tehran, professed bewilderment at the notion that Americans might be insulted by his presence on America’s hallowed ground.
He will also no doubt be confused that he’s receiving so much attention in the first place.
Contrary to conventional American wisdom, Mr. Ahmadinejad is not the powerful player in Iran that he’s cracked up to be. And ironically, all the fuss surrounding his mere presence in the city will serve mostly to boost Mr. Ahmadinejad’s own agenda, which is to be the spokesman for not just the Iranian nation but for the entire oppressed Third World.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is a tailor-made villain for Americans, given his desire to see “Israel wiped off the map,” his questions about the Holocaust, and the Bush administration’s forceful insistence that he is the leader of a nation that is the “No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism.”
Even here, though, the man falls somewhat short of the myth. While he would no doubt like to see Israel disappear from the map—although his actual words were the “regime that occupies Jerusalem,” which arguably means the government, not the people—he is not in much of a position to do anything about it. The president of Iran, unlike the president of the United States, has no control over the military apparatus of his country or its foreign policy.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the Holocaust, while inexcusable for a supposedly highly educated (albeit ill-traveled) president of a country, seems so cataclysmic precisely because it has been coupled with the idea that he might actually one day have the ability, through the acquirement of nuclear weapons, to perpetrate another one. But again, he won’t. (Not even on Iran’s own population of some 30,000 Jews, the second-largest community in the Middle East after Israel.)
He simply doesn’t have the power. President Bush may like to call his titular Iranian counterpart the “leader” of Iran, but that position, literally, belongs to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution. It is to the Supreme Leader that the military, including the Revolutionary Guards, reports, and it is the Supreme Leader who sets Iran’s foreign policy. The president may have a say, as do countless other individuals, clerical and lay, in the Machiavellian competing centers of power in Tehran, but he is not, unlike Mr. Bush, The Decider. But Mr. Ahmadinejad, even if his country possesses nuclear weapons and the delivery systems they require at some point in the future, will not have his finger on the button.
And suggesting that he orchestrates the actions of the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism (and Iran will freely admit to its support, at least moral, of Hezbollah and Hamas) is a deliberate effort to prompt the image for Americans of swarthy men with box cutters on American airplanes. Iran’s foreign policy has always been one of supporting Muslim “liberation” organizations, a policy it is well aware is supported by millions of Muslims throughout the world even as it is condemned by the U.S. and its allies.
It is a policy that the Iranian government views as negotiable, as the Iranian government indicated in a memo to the Bush administration way back in 2003. Former President Khatami was the would-be negotiator then, and Mr. Ahmadinejad might be the would-be negotiator now, but neither would be able to conclude any negotiations without the direct approval of the Supreme Leader.
Moreover, Mr. Ahmadinejad lacks a popular mandate. As I saw on my most recent trip to Tehran, he is in similar shape domestically to Mr. Bush, with low poll ratings and general dissatisfaction with his administration. His management of the economy, the No. 1 issue for Iranians and one area he is ostensibly responsible for, has been a dismal failure by many accounts and has led to unusually public rebukes in the Iranian media, and his support for hard-line crackdowns on everything from protesting labor leaders to public immorality have made headlines throughout the world and made him unpopular with more moderate Iranians (who outnumber hard-line conservatives, as they’ve shown in every national election of the past 10 years with the singular exception of the presidential election of 2005, when Ahmadinejad ran more as a populist than a hard-liner).
Those pressing issues may lead to his losing the next election in 2009, assuming he doesn’t turn the economy around—or the U.S. doesn’t carpet-bomb his country—but they won’t change the fundamental dynamics of Iranian politics. Mr. Khamenei and his closest advisers and aides will continue to set Iran’s policy as it relates to the U.S., Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and the nuclear issue, and all those policies, the ones we care about most, are open to negotiation if we have the will to sit down with the right messengers.
The president of Iran, whoever he is, will continue to come to New York yearly to address the U.N. General Assembly, and his visits will include headline-grabbing meetings, interviews and conferences as they have all this week. (His most important duty in New York, delivering Iran’s address to the U.N., which sets out its position on international affairs, is often largely overlooked because his speech usually is, unlike his other statements, rather uninflammatory, and reflects the true intentions and policies of the Islamic Republic.)
But in elevating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a position of power he simply doesn’t possess, the U.S. flatters him, and makes a mistake that can benefit only those who wish to see us continue on a confrontational path that could lead to war.
Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American writer who has interpreted for two presidents of Iran during their visits to the United States.
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