September 26, 2008

NYT Interview with Ahmadinejad in New York

Let no one say that Ahmadinejad is a stupid man.  His public persona is so fiery and controversial, yet in private he is reserved, calm, and accessable.  Seeing him in this setting, it would be easy for one to forget the vicious vitriol that he flung just moments before from the podium in front of the UN General Assembly.  (or possibly his uniquely hostile rhetoric toward Israel and the United States…or his government’s abysmal human rights record…or his bizarre and ridiculous statement about there being no gays in Iran…etc).
What strikes me about all this is that his hostility toward Israel and the US is not visceral; it’s rational, thought out, and developed policy.  If he can hold onto these radical ideas in such a calm and polite discussion, then it must–at least in his own mind–make sense.

It seems to me that for politicians, whether in the US or Iran, everything is easier when you have an enemy.  An enemy can serve a number of very valuable purposes–it can distract from costly economic mismanagement, strict repression at home, or political corruption.  And this is a lesson Tehran has learned very well.  In the early days of the Islamic Republic, when Saddam Hussein tried to destroy the regime while it was still relatively weak, the Iranian people rallied around the one thing they had in common: their country.  In the presence of an enemy, they united behind their leaders and consolidated the revolutionary government.
The United States experienced something very similar throughout the Cold War.  Americans were unified more by the common enemy of the Soviet Union than anything else.  And even for those of us working in Washington, it’s always easier to be against something than to be for something. Anyone can mobilize an angry mob to make sure Congress or the President doesn’t do something they’re considering, but it takes a much more sophisticated effort to persuade lawmakers that they should take a certain positive action.
In my opinion, the ultimate tragedy of President Ahmadinejad is not that he is an extremist and takes an overly-belligerent international posture, but rather that he uses his extremism and belligerence as a crutch to make up for his inability to make his country better.  This, after all, is the reason he was elected in the first place: to improve the lives of his people.

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