Opinion: Iran's leader plays the pan-Muslim populist

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The World

NEW YORK — When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the United Nations on Wednesday, he will speak past the world leaders gathered in the cavernous hall of the General Assembly. His message will be crafted to improve his standing in the Muslim world and bolster his reputation as a Third World hero.

In a region ruled by kings and despots, Ahmadinejad has worked hard to cultivate his image as a pan-Islamic populist leader who is not afraid to stand up to the West. He quickly became more popular with Arabs than among his own people, who were frustrated by his inability 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, who are Persian and have far less at stake in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ahmadinejad revels in being an international provocateur. Before the rigged presidential election and popular uprising in Iran, the controversy generated by his remarks would appease conservatives inside Iran and win over the wider Muslim world. But today Ahmadinejad is just another despot in the Middle East — and he needs to use his United Nations platform to win back some credibility. He won’t be able to erase the stain of a stolen election and his power grab. But he can rail against Israel and Western domination, emphasize the plight of the Palestinians, and claim to speak for the downtrodden everywhere.

In September 2007, when Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University during a visit to the United Nations, I argued that the best response was for the West to ignore him because he was not the true source of power in the Iranian regime. Under Iran’s theocratic system, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has final say in all political and national security matters. But Ahmadinejad’s role has changed: he has seized far more authority than he had a few years ago and he is working tirelessly to eliminate his political opponents. It’s much harder to ignore his antics and poisonous rhetoric. Ahmadinejad’s struggle to burnish his credibility mirrors the entire Iranian regime’s quest for renewed legitimacy. After the June election, many in the West predicted that the Iranian ruling clique, if it survived, would be weakened by internal problems and would have to abandon its regional ambitions.

True, the clerical hierarchy and military apparatus in Tehran do need to shore up their Islamic and populist credentials. But contrary to the conventional wisdom, their best chance at doing that is to focus outward: an imperial Iran trying to extend its dominance over the Persian Gulf and the region as a whole. As it seeks to maintain its grip on power, the Iranian regime will be tempted to engage in more, not less, adventurism abroad.

This will further polarize the Middle East between the so-called “axis of resistance” (anti-imperialist, anti-Western, led by Iran and its allies Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas) and the “axis of accommodation” (Sunni Arab states allied with the United States). The “axis of resistance” has always represented itself as the true paladin of the majority of people in the Arab and Muslim worlds, many of whom are stifled under regimes that “sold out” to the United States. But that image has been shaken by the Iranian election and violent suppression of protesters.

Can Ahmadinejad win back some of his lost luster? That will be the main goal of his United Nations speech. Many Arabs — used to leaders who build ostentatious palaces for themselves and rarely rub shoulders with the average Joe — still admire Ahmadinejad’s man of the people persona. He 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.

Ahmadinejad is a Shiite 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-Shiite tensions, which are on the rise because of the Iraq war.

In whispers, Arabs describe 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. Arabs admire Ahmadinejad because he is willing to confront the Unites States and Israel, he is mindful of his people’s interests, and he is in touch with the common man — it helps that he has a tendency to wear sport jackets.

"He has the courage to stand up to America and Israel,” an Egyptian civil servant told me over sips of mint tea in a Cairo coffee house in 2007. “What other leader in the world is doing that?”

Ahmadinejad knows how to exploit the schism between Arabs and their rulers. Since 2003, the traditional centers of power in the Arab world — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states — have been extremely nervous about the growing influence of Iran: its nuclear ambitions, its sway over the Iraqi government and Shiite militias, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its alliance with Syria. Arab leaders are not worried that Iran will export the cultural aspects of Shiism; rather, they are afraid of political Shiism spreading to the Arab world through groups like Hezbollah. The group’s strong performance against a far superior Israeli military during the July 2006 war has electrified the Arab world, and it offers a stark contrast to Arab rulers appeasing the United States. Arab regimes fear that their Sunni populations will be seduced by a new and potent admixture of Arabism and Shiite identity — by Iran and Hezbollah’s message of empowering the dispossessed.

Expect Ahmadinejad to tap into that theme. In the process, he will seek to burnish his Third World credentials as a leader who is not afraid to venture into the lion’s den — emerging unscathed and ever audacious.

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