Armin Azad writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Dear Israel and America: Please don’t feed the Troll
On Wednesday September 26, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, will make further controversial statements at the United Nations General Assembly.
Ahmadinejad, the Sarah Palin of the Islamic Republic, craves personal publicity, seeking it through provocation and controversy. He likes the flash of cameras and media attention, even though he has no profound or informed insights to offer, given his narrow engineering education and his bizarre ideas about the rest of the world. Throughout the course of his presidency he has been trying hard to take advantage of the media to serve his political agenda, both in Iran and in other parts of the world, with a particular eye on Arab street. Like a fading former teen pop star, however, his star has sunk and he is on the verge of becoming a non-entity.
To draw media attention, Ahmadinejad does not hesitate to use the General Assembly’s podium for making shocking statements such as denying the Holocaust or questioning the 9/11 tragedy or calling it “Mysterious”. It does not matter to him that by casting doubt on the Holocaust he not only denies a horrible historic crime and makes himself a laughingstock in the world community, but also provides ammunition to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his allies in pushing forward their campaign against Iran. Netanyahu and other hawks in the Israeli government could have not hoped for better help, particularly coming from such an unlikely quarter. They do not miss any opportunity to remind the world of Ahmadinejad’s remarks in their campaigns against Iran over the nuclear issue.
With this September’s gathering, Ahmadinejad has attended the United Nations General Assembly for eight consecutive years. He has addressed the General Assembly in every single year of his presidency, something that is quite unusual for a head of state. Only the US President, as leader of the host country to the United Nations has participated on such a regular basis in this annual gathering.
Despite this last opportunity for him to strut about on the world stage, Ahmadinejad’s political ambitions have suffered irreparable setbacks both in Iran and in the Arab world. In Iran, his policies and management style have been the subject of severe criticism from his fellow conservatives, or, as they are called in Iranian political jargon, the “usulgarayan” (“principle-ists”), for quite some time. Many consider him controversial, divisive and populist. Even some of his critics in the conservative camp castigate him for his remarks about the Holocaust, saying that they have caused political harm to Iran’s international standing, playing into the hands of Israeli hawks.
The fall of Ahmadinejad’s star started last spring, when his faction badly lost in the parliamentary elections. Worse, he went on to have disastrous public differences with Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Iran’s supreme leader, over certain political appointments. Ahmadinejad had made decisions in this regard that were not acceptable to the supreme leader. After initially insisting on his decisions, Ahmadinejad finally had to back down. Ever since, he and some of his close allies have regularly been the target of virulent political attacks and his political influence has diminished considerably.
Some of his fellow conservative politicians asked for his impeachment and removal from office. Rumor has it that to avoid the political cost that his abrupt removal might have had for the ruling regime, the supreme leader decided to tolerate him as a lame duck president until his term had finished. That would be for roughly one more year.
(Ahmadinejad was sworn in for a second 4-year term as president on 5 Aug 2009.) Serious accusations, however, have been leveled against some of his closest allies; a few of them are even under the equivalent of a grand jury investigation. His first deputy (Mohamadreza Rahimi) has been accused of financial corruption and an extensive investigation has been opened against him by the judiciary. The president’s executive deputy (Hamid Baghaie) is equally facing legal charges. Last but not least, his once powerful and omnipresent political ally – the president’s chief of staff (Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie) – is now keeping a very low profile out of fear of being arrested.
Among Iran’s regional neighbors to the west, the developments that led to the Arab Spring and the overthrow of a string of dictators has changed the equation for Ahmadinejad too. Now, these countries have their own style of democratic government, and Iran’s theocratic police state looks retrograde to them. Moreover, his support for the brutal dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has deeply angered many young Arabs. The Arab street does not have the same admiration for Ahmadinejad and his controversial remarks as it had in, say, 2006. Ahmadinejad, in other words, lost the Arab Street to the Arab Spring.
If nothing extraordinary happens between now and the end of his presidency, the best fate that Ahmadinejad can hope for is to return to teaching civil engineering (his specialty is traffic engineering) at university. One thing, however, could change things for him dramatically, keeping him in the limelight and guaranteeing him a prominent political role well into the future: an Israeli attack on Iran. In such a case, all the Iranian leaders will forget their political differences and form a united front against aggression. Iranian nationalistic sentiments will rally an absolute majority of the people behind the government. Not only Ahmadinejad’s political ambitions will be revived, but the ruling regime as a whole will be strengthened and its medium to longer-term survival guaranteed.
Armin Azad is a former Iranian diplomat now living in Europe.