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When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says outrageous things, the world listens and condemns him. But that’s exactly what he wants.
Beset by internal problems and the failure of his economic policies, Ahmadinejad revels in being an international outcast and provocateur. In turn, the controversy generated by his remarks bolsters his support at home.
His rhetoric is often aimed not just at appeasing conservatives inside Iran but at winning over the Arab world.
With his defiance toward the United States, his calls for wiping Israel off the map, his denial of the Holocaust and his tendency to dress in sport jackets, Ahmadinejad has captured the imagination of people in the Arab street. Walk into any coffeehouse in Cairo or Damascus, and the conversation quickly turns to Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Ahmadinejad has struck a chord with the Arab masses as no other Iranian leader has since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic cleric who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Arabs admire Ahmadinejad because they believe he is brave enough to stand up to the United States and Israel, he is mindful of his people’s interests, and he is in touch with the common man. In whispers, Arabs talk of how the Iranian leader is different from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, who are dependent on American support to stay in power.
In a region ruled by kings and despots, Ahmadinejad has worked hard to cultivate his image as a populist hero. Ironically, he has become more popular among Arabs than among his own people, who are frustrated by his inability to deliver on promises to improve a stagnant economy, root out corruption and redistribute oil wealth. When Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust or threatens Israel, his rhetoric resonates more with Arabs than Iranians.
Ahmadinejad is a Shia Muslim and a Persian in a region dominated by Sunni Arabs. Historically, Arabs have been fearful of Iran’s cultural and political influence. But he plays the anti-American and anti-Israel cards in an attempt to transcend the Persian-Arab rift and Sunni-Shia tensions, which are exacerbated because of the Iraq War. His rhetoric works. “He has the courage to stand up to America and Israel. What other leader in the world is doing that?” an Egyptian civil servant told me a few months ago over sips of mint tea in a Cairo coffeehouse.
Many Arabs–accustomed to leaders who build ostentatious palaces for themselves and rarely rub shoulders with the average Joe–admire Ahmadinejad’s man-of-the-people persona. “He always wears common clothing, like his fellow countrymen,” an Egyptian schoolteacher told me. “He doesn’t think he’s better than them.”
After his speech this week at Columbia University, Ahmadinejad’s stock in the Arab street is sure to rise even higher: Citizens of Iran and the Arab world are angry at Columbia University president Lee Bollinger for insulting the Iranian leader during his introduction.
Trying to appease his own critics for inviting Ahmadinejad to the campus, Bollinger called his guest a “petty and cruel dictator” and added, “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” Even Iranians who dislike their leader were shocked by the schoolyard taunts; in the Middle East you don’t invite a guest to your home and then insult him.
Bollinger–and the entire uproar over the Columbia event–played right into the Iranian leader’s hand. Ahmadinejad might be petty and cruel, but he is far from having enough authority to be Iran’s dictator. The true levers of power in Iran rest with a group of unelected clerics, and particularly the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Under Iran’s theocratic system, the supreme leader has final say in all political and social matters. His word is regarded as infallible, and he is thought responsible only to God. This unique structure was created for Khomeini.
Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini after his death in 1989, holds a lesser clerical rank, and reformers have been bolder in questioning his authority. But Khamenei exerts influence through his control of the armed forces and the 12-member Guardian Council, which answers directly to him.
Iran’s president is not powerless, but it’s important to understand that Ahmadinejad cannot dictate his country’s nuclear policies or its relationship with the West. By demonizing Ahmadinejad and reacting to his every provocative remark, the West has improved his stature and helped him consolidate perhaps more power than he would have amassed on his own.
There is a more pragmatic way for the West to deal with Ahmadinejad: Ignore him. Don’t make a big fuss about his antics. Without that sense of international outrage, he will be forced to turn his attention to Iran’s internal problems. And he will lose his platform as a populist leader who is not afraid to stand up to the West.
MOHAMAD BAZZI, a former Newsday Middle East bureau chief, is a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.