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

How Ahmadinejad plays better on the Arab street than in Persian society

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks on during his first news conference after the presidential elections in Tehran, June 14, 2009. Ahmadinejad is set to address the U.N. on Sept. 23. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

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.