Is it Ahmadinejad’s last hurrah?

October 5, 2012

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the impenitent president of Iran, arrived in New York for his eighth, and presumably last, official visit on a late September Saturday night. The media hung on his every belligerent, homophobic or anti-Israeli word — while at the same time dismissing him as a lame duck, irrelevant to Iran’s future. But missing in all the coverage was what Ahmadinejad’s legacy may be and whether he’ll have a political future beyond Iran’s presidential election in June.

Beleaguered at home by infighting and the dire economic situation – due to sanctions, but also his administration’s mismanagement – Ahmadinejad seemed even more eager to enjoy his usual week of Western media attention. His schedule was packed – not just with media appearances but also meetings with peace groups, anti-capitalist protest groups and scholars.

Ahmadinejad’s U.N. lecture, the reason for his visit, was surprisingly mild. He essentially laid out a personal philosophy on world governance, cloaking it as Iran’s, that was based on religion. He understood this speech might well help define his legacy – at least for an audience back home or in the Muslim world.

Ahmadinejad has had a profound effect on Iran domestically, and has affected its international standing to a greater degree than anyone could have imagined when he was first elected eight years ago.

He has made many domestic political enemies – from fellow conservatives to the reformists he’s vanquished. But he also set a precedent with his independence. He was fearless in clashes with other branches of government – even with the ayatollahs, who wield the real power in Iran. So it’s hard to imagine him quietly fading away next year – no matter how eagerly many Iranians look forward to this.

Ahmadinejad seemed weary when he sat down to talk with seven U.S. journalists, at a private two-hour meeting in his hotel last week. Yet he still exhibited the excessive self-confidence he is known for. His large ego was evident in his lengthy answers to even simple questions. While he is expert at evading and dodging questions, he still revealed how he viewed his outsize role in the world.

When I asked him about his legacy, and his political future after he leaves office in 2013, he smiled and said, “Of course the political scene won’t leave me for long!” As he saw it: “There are two speeches at the U.N. General Assembly that are important and everyone feels they have to pay attention to. One is the U.S. president’s, and the other is Iran’s.”

He attributed this to his ability to represent the people.  “When I speak to the public masses, anywhere in the world,” he explained, “the people feel like it’s they who are speaking.”

This is true no matter what the U.S. media say, he implied. “By now,” he said in one monologue-length answer, “I’ve been called everything from Hitler to mass murderer in your media. But I ask you, who is the most popular leader in the world?” He clearly meant himself. But no one in the room answered him. And even as he was speaking, a crowd of protesters outside chanted slogans against him.

As for the sanctions against Iran’s oil exports, Ahmadinejad asserted that since they had been imposed, Iran’s oil contracts (which his interpreter initially mistranslated as “exports” – and both he and I, the only other Farsi speaker in the room, corrected) have increased by a factor of 1.5. He pointed out that Iran has “bought 25 ships to fulfill these contracts.”

“Our economy is not as tight as you expect,” he said with a broad smile – implying that Iran has found ways to export more than the allowed 800,000 barrels a day. Yet this is still a precipitous drop from the 2.5 million that Tehran exported pre-sanctions.

Ahmadinejad’s arrogant self-confidence was on display from the start of the discussion last week, when David Sanger, a New York Times reporter, asked about the nuclear program and where Iran would be willing to compromise. “You are researchers and scholars and have strong opinions,” the president replied, “but if this is going to be an interview, then we’ll probably waste each other’s time. I’m ready to respond to questions, but there are more constructive issues that need addressing. After all, I know every possible question and every answer by heart by now!”

Ahmadinejad then embarked on a lengthy monologue about the state of world affairs and his views on what had to be changed — avoiding the nuclear question altogether. He was clearly attempting to define his legacy for those present, whom he may have imagined to be more influential than we were.

On terrorism, he questioned the U.S.’s once-declared state of “war.” “The president of Pakistan told me personally,” he stated, “that there are 42,000 trained suicide bombers in Pakistan. Is the world a safer place?”

Forty-two thousand? Really? Combined with its nuclear arsenal, that is a troubling statement on Pakistan, a country seemingly forgotten in the U.S. media.

As for the YouTube video about Mohammad that sparked protests across the Muslim world, he emphatically said, “It was insulting, but in my opinion it shouldn’t have mattered. I do not believe that the U.S. government was behind it. But the question is, when these things happen, why is it that people chant slogans against the U.S.? There is a deeper cause. Look at Libya. The U.S. supported the Libyan revolution – and yet it didn’t help you in this country.”

Sadly, he was right.

When Ahmadinejad’s U.N. visits fade from memory, the next big Iran issue may well be who is the next president, and whether he will be in the mold of Ahmadinejad.

Many already view Ahmadinejad as increasingly irrelevant. The Iranian currency crisis, which erupted only a week after his return, has been interpreted by some political analysts as a sign of his further political weakening — making the question moot. Rioting over a sharp decline in the Iranian rial against the dollar, with protesters chanting anti-Ahmadinejad (but not anti-regime) slogans suggests that he may barely survive the next nine months in office, let alone influence the future political scene. But his recent feisty performance at a Tehran press conference again showed him to be unrepentant – as he foisted blame for Iran’s woes on his enemies.

While many Iranians, and many in the West, might cheer his departure, what has been overlooked is that he, unlike his fellow conservatives, is still keen on establishing U.S. relations – which he reiterated in interviews. He also seems interested in compromising on the nuclear issue – particularly in the matter of higher levels of enrichment.

Both these views have come under fierce attack in Tehran – suggesting that the Iranian leadership is actually less interested than he in a moderate stance with the West.

So, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

One final question at the meeting with writers, from veteran reporter Robin Wright, the author of Rock the Casbah, was about Iran’s presidential elections. “Will you support Mashaie for the post?” she asked. She was referring to Esfandiar Mashaie, Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and bête noir of Iran’s conservatives, who has been accused of everything from sorcery to being head of the “deviant current.” He was accompanying the president on his trip, but keeping a low profile. Ahmadinejad smiled, and said he had no comment.

“So that’s a no?” asked Wright. “You can take that however you want,” he replied, still smiling. Curiously, no one wondered if his choice might not be Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, his closest aide, who is more circumspect and the architect of his political campaigns and his philosophy. He was sitting near the president throughout the interview, taking notes.

Back in Tehran, dealing with the economic crisis, he’s undoubtedly still taking notes – probably on how to reverse the president’s fortunes. He’s not, however, a likely candidate – and Ahmadinejad is no Vladimir Putin.

Yet it would be a mistake to count Ahmadinejad, or his top aides, entirely out. They have had eight years of experience in fighting every imaginable domestic political battle.  They’ve won some and lost some, and may lose the volatile currency battle going on now.

But none is likely to disappear from the political scene – not without another fight.

PHOTO: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during the 67th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 26, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar 

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