Why We Should Ignore Ahmadinejad

Posted by Nathan Gonzalez


The president of Iran says the darndest things-but that doesn't really matter.


This week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be in New York to speak before the United Nations General Assembly. As with previous such appearances by the Iranian president, the event promises to inspire little substantive debate about Iran 's role in the world, its internal political divisions, or its controversial nuclear program. Instead, the Iranian delegation and its tireless critics here in the United States will bring us the kind of over-the-top dramatic performance that no VH1-produced reality show could ever fabricate. If only we could stop watching.

Ever since Ahmadinejad came to office following a dark horse election victory in 2005, the former mayor of Tehran has made himself into something of a caricature in Western eyes. Eternally impressed by his own revolutionary rhetoric, Ahmadinejad has not strayed too much from the regime's preferred vocabulary, using the U.N. as a platform to speak on behalf of the "oppressed" and against countries that "occupy the homeland of others, thousands of kilometers away from their borders;" code for the violence perpetrated by first-world nations, which Iran, of course, would never allow itself to engage in.

It doesn't help that his recent reelection was marred by claims that the vote was stolen, along with opposition street protests of a size and scope not seen since the revolution of 1978 and 1979.

But Iranian revolutionary talk has not tainted Ahmadinejad the way his anti-Semitic statements have. Aside from openly calling for the end of the state of Israel, the sole Jewish state in the world, Ahmadinejad has actually questioned the reality of the Holocaust-a move that speaks volumes about his lack of understanding of Western sensibilities.

Ahmadinejad hasn't escaped the caricature label back home, either. Following his first visit to the U.N. in 2005, he suggested to Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli that a halo had formed over him while he was speaking to an audience of world leaders: "A member of the (Iranian) delegation told me, ‘I saw a light that surrounded you.' … I sensed it myself too. … All leaders in audience didn't blink for 27, 28 minutes. … they had opened their eyes and ears to see what is the message from the Islamic Republic." The YouTube clip of the encounter made the rounds during the 2009 presidential election, cementing Ahmadinejad's image as a person of superstitious religiosity, the kind that tends to embarrass the clerical establishment and only further alienates Iran's millions of secular-leaning voters.

Of course, Ahmadinejad's antics are only part of the story. Western reactions to the Iranian president have ranged from strange to outright comical. While still U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in 2007 John Bolton called for Ahmadinejad to be "charged with inciting genocide," an quixotic effort by the U.S. delegation that wasted time and dwindling credibility.

Not to be outdone, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger allowed Ahmadinejad to speak at his university that same year, just so he could insult him in front of a national audience, saying in part, "Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." Bollinger's words served as an insult to the Iranian nation, which, like every democratic and nondemocratic state in the world, deserved to have its leaders granted a basic level of diplomatic respect. The insult was also misguided-Ahmadinejad, perhaps despite his own hopes, is not even close to dictator-status. The presidency of Iran is a relatively weak office, with little say over domestic and international security matters.

With such extreme and useless language coming from influential figures in America, it is no accident that so much of the discussion in the media has degenerated into a false choice between embracing Ahmadinejad and his rhetoric, and setting the stage for a blind confrontation with Iran.

The United States-and the world-would benefit from long-term stability in Iraq and Afghanistan (both Iran 's neighbors). This will be impossible without the Islamic Republic's active and tireless cooperation. All negotiations, accusations, and debates regarding Iran and its political figures must be driven by our commitment to ensuring that the progress made by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is not undermined by our desire to "stick it" to Ahmadinejad.

Coming to an agreement with Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader and the country's ultimate constitutional authority, should be the Obama administration's focus. And as such it is difficult to see why Ahmadinejad needs to factor into the equation at all, no matter how eager he may be to sit across from U.S. officials and jump into one of his usual lectures.

Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad's speech at the U.N. will serve as just another opportunity for politicians and the mainstream media to engage in a play-by-play analysis of Ahmadinejad's silly and at times hateful rhetoric. Iran's reality show, brought to us by confrontational figures in the Islamic Republic and the United States, will be just like reality shows on primetime American TV-predictably scripted and only vacuously entertaining.

If only the American public could stop obsessing over a talentless party girl, or hanging on every word of an equally overrated, attention-seeking Iranian president, our country might be able to focus on matters of serious consequence.

Nathan Gonzalez is the author of Engaging Iran: The Rise of a Middle East Powerhouse and America's Strategic Choice and the upcoming book The Sunni-Shia Conflict: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the Middle East. He is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.