Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently visited New York City. If he was unfamiliar with the Bronx cheer, he is familiar with it now. President Ahmadinejad officially came to New York to speak before the United Nations general assembly. He also accepted an invitation to speak at Columbia University prior to his appearance at the U.N. He wanted to visit Ground Zero and place a wreath but this was denied for security reasons and a huge public outcry. The Columbia speech was the media focal point of the visit and the media could not have been more pleased.
The New York tabloids had a literal field day with bombastic, hypercritic headlines, including such gems as "The evil has landed". Virtually every camera and microphone in the city was at Columbia University waiting for the magic moment. Several thousand students crammed in front of a large viewing screen set up outside on the campus grounds. More than six hundred bodies packed the auditorium where he was to speak. Protesters of all kinds marched about the place. Security was extremely tight with only those carrying officially approved Columbia University documentation allowed anywhere near the hall. The show did not disappoint.
Columbia University was under tremendous criticism over the invitation. University president Lee Bollinger tried to assuage some of the barbs, with a scathing, ten minute introduction of the president, strongly suggesting that Ahmadinejad might well be stupid in addition to being an overly provocative and bad guy. The crowd was electric and eagerly anticipated Iranian bluster. Ahmadinejad provided it.
Speaking through an interpreter, the president side-stepped answering questions by asking questions in a Socratic manner. In other words, he dodged the questions in typical politician-like style. One pundit noted that Ahmadinejad asked twice as many questions as he was asked. Maybe I should try that method the next time my wife asks me where I had been all night.
Ahmadinejad startled everyone during the talk when he proclaimed with a confident smile that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Most of the audience laughed. One could almost hear all the American right-wing, Christian Evangelicals leaping out of their collective seats in a mad dash to uncover the Iranian secret. "If only we could do that here," one of them, no doubt, fondly wished.
Ahmadinejad spoke at the United Nations the next day as did President George Bush. Neither man met with the other, nor were there any Senator Larry Craig sightings in the men's room stalls. The U.S. delegation left the assembly when Ahmadinejad spoke. The Iranians left the assembly when Bush spoke later in the day. So much for mature and enlightened diplomacy.
The Iranian president was highly critical of the United States, without naming the country. Everyone knew who he was targeting. Ahmadinejad ripped into America for terrorizing its own citizens, violating their rights and generally being bad, little boys and girls.
Mr. Ahmadinejad should know of what he speaks. The Iranian government is an expert at terrorizing its citizenry. The ayatollahs know how to suppress. Amnesty International just reported that Iran has executed more than 200 people this year. Iran officially executed more than 170 people last year, including two teenagers. Everyone believes the actual number of executions is higher, perhaps significantly higher. The government's crackdown on civil liberties and women's rights in Iran has been well-documented over the past several years. Police state thy name is Iran.
One of the big mysteries is why all the fuss over Ahmadinejad? This former mayor of Tehran clearly enjoys his public appearances. He almost certainly believes everything he says, no matter how outrageous and inaccurate. The truth is the Iranian presidency is limited. The office has nowhere near the authority of most presidents or prime ministers around the globe. The Iranian president has no authority over international matters. The ruling ayatollahs, wisely or unwisely, control that. Ahmadinejad cannot order a military attack or negotiate a treaty with any country without approval from the ayatollahs. The Iranian presidents' number one job is to handle the daily operations and the economy of Iran. That is a daunting task but it carries no international policy decision making.
And let's be honest. The Iranian economy is not doing well despite huge oil and natural gas revenues. Ahmadinejad was elected to root-out corruption and improve the economy, especially for the poor. All recent news stories paint a portrait of a floundering Ahmadinejad presidency. Inflation, unemployment and poverty are very high. Surprising numbers of Iranian homeowners have become rich due to rising real estate values. Those many millions of Iranians who rent are being squeezed hard by the same rising real estate. Ahmadinejad's popularity has been sinking all across the Iranian political and economic spectrum.
A long-held political principle says that when you as a national leader are in trouble domestically, tightly wrap yourself in the flag and turn international. This is exactly what Ahmadinejad is doing and the ayatollahs allow it. The strategy has some appeal. Ahmadinejad is popular in the third-world. They love the image of this austere, simple and devout Muslim, striding about the worlds' stage and jabbing his finger in the ample eyes of those oppressive, Zionist westerners, particularly the rich and fat bullies from the United States. They like that a lot. Promoting civil liberties, plurality, tolerance and democracy in their countries? Well, they don't care much for that.
Perhaps this is the real value of watching Ahmadinejad perform, no matter how bad the script and acting may be. He is a representative of those repressive governments around the world who rely on police-state tactics rather than legitimate democratic institutions, to acquire and retain power over their bludgeoned citizens. He is a near perfect spokesman for that role. We shall see how long this tragic play runs.