Friday, September 28, 2007

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Which audience matters?

A bunch of readers have e-mailed or linked to Jeffrey Fleishman's Los Angeles Times story from earlier this week about how Ahmadinejad's U.S. trip has played well in the Middle East -- he ostensibly has "folk hero" status.

Certainly this is a potentially relevant audience -- but if you think about it, for Ahmadinejad it's actually his least relevant audience.

How has the trip played inside Iran? In the Washington Post, Robin Wright suggests not so well -- in part because it played so badly in the United States:

The congressional rebuke a few hours before Ahmadinejad's Iran Air 747 departed reflected what American scholars and Iranians alike depicted as a missed opportunity by the Iranian president to ease mounting tensions between Iran and the West, particularly the United States....

"Iranians find the Western reaction insulting and a sign of belligerence, but Ahmadinejad has also not emerged as a statesman or a diplomat," said Vali Nasr of Tufts University. "The Iranian blogs and chat rooms are clearly taken aback not just by the comments [at Columbia] but by the headlines of tabloids. . . . He has tried to reach out to Americans, but to a large measure he has failed -- and the Iranian political elite know he has failed."

It should be oted that Nasr's view is not held by everyone -- but I'm unconvinced that this was a domestic win for him.

How about the Security Council? Blake Hounshell suggests, again, not so well:

[N]otice what happened today at the U.N.: French President Sarkozy called for "combining firmness with dialogue," reiterating his position, "if we allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, we would incur an unacceptable risk to stability in the region ad the world." And Germany's Angela Merkel came out in support of a new round of sanctions "if [Iran's] behavior doesn't change." She added, "Israel's security isn't negotiable," and referred to Ahmadinejad's history of comments on Israel as "inhumane".

These statements may well have been worked out on Friday, when the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany met in Washington to discuss the sanctions issue. But it sure was easier for Germany to toughen its stance after yesterday's farce at Columbia. Ahmadinejad had a chance to come across as a moderate, undercutting the unity of the EU3. Instead, he came across as a buffoon not ready for prime time.

Question to readers: does Ahmadinejad's popularity in the Middle East matter as much as his unpopularity at home, in the United States, and in the United Nations?

UPDATE: More conflicting takes from the weekend newspapers.

posted by Dan on 09.28.07 at 01:39 PM


He is quite popular in the Arab world, and he is generally popular in Iran. You can post as many elite opinions as you want, but those from north Tehran do not represent the Iranian people. They are an oligarch who would rather keep the people under foot than show them respect. They have power, but they cannot shape Iran as much as they think they can. From my friends in Iran, I get an impression that Ahmadinejad is neither generally popular or unpopular. He probably has 50% support (with a hard core for and against him).

That said, it is absolutely impossible for me to believe that his trip did anything but strengthen his position. The range of views i have heard have stretched from "Ahmadinejad proved how civilized Iran is by taking the sh&t that those bastard Americans dumped on him..." to "Ahmadinejad should have walked out and not shown so much respect to those bastard Americans..." Mind you, the latter tends to come form those who hate Ahmadinejad.

Therefore, to answer your question directly, his popularity at home is most important for Iran and for himself, and he has improved his position lately in this respect. His popularity in the Arab world is second most important, and will be very very important if there is a war in the near future. His popularity with the US is totally irrelevant to anything, as Americans don't know their face from their ass when it comes to international relations. and his popularity in the UN is pretty important to Iranians and to Ahmadinejad, because they see themselves are leaders in organizations like the non-aligned movement, and see themselves as something like a weather vane. The think that other poor and weak countries should support them, and if they don't, they see that as a bad sign that they are vulnerable to attack or sanctions... Plus, they legitimately have a view of international sovereignty that is inconsistent with other poor countries taking the American Empire's side.

posted by: Joe M. on 09.28.07 at 01:39 PM [permalink]

Daniel - I am unsure whether you have posed the question well - I don't see that his visit would have done anything much anywhere except a slight hardening of stances at either poles - and thats where most lie when it comes to Mahmoud. Nobody is likely to 'switch sides'.

I think the person who left the comment above is largely right that his 'popularity' in US is largely a moot point because all of that has been manufactured to effectively by US media. Of course the fact that it bears very little resemblance to the 'truth' is a different matter. Mahmoud may be incendiary - but really the hand-waving and xenophobia is more a construction. Do look into Wikipedia about an incomplete but reasonably educated translation/mis-translation/and interpretation of whatever he has said.

To me his foreign policy positions don't come as a surprise, and nor do they seem particularly reactionary. If anything- they are probably representative of the opinion on the Arab (and Persian) street. Again bellicose sentiment doesn't translate to appetite for war for Iranians are wary of war given the huge losses they suffered during the Iran-Iraq war. And I am sure that their adjacent country has been bombed back into stone age by US has done little to inspire confidence for war - especially in a young forward looking demographic.

In the domestic front - Mahmoud hasn't been particularly effective as economically Iran faces just humongous challenges - a demographic wave of young adults who all need jobs, a failing oil sector (Iran importing oil is legendary), and poor infrastructure.

All this bellicose talk by Merkel, Rice, and Sarkozy seems a bit like an exercise in orchestrated overstatement.

I somehow have a feeling that Iran is enough in a corner that diplomacy -which saves face of Iranian leadership- can work wonders. The west would be well advised to do that rather than follow this ridiculous absurdist path of choreographed polemics.

posted by: Gaurav on 09.28.07 at 01:39 PM [permalink]

1. I like Fareed Zakaria's suggestion ("What They Least Expect" ) that we try to kill Ahmadinejad with kindness, by demonstrating that he, not the United States, is the true obstacle to peace, by offering "concessions" (free trade, and cultural and educational exchanges) that we know he won't accept (and which will undermine their regime if they did accept).

2. I also like the suggestion that I read on another blog (which I'm embarassed to say I can't remember) that we should not be worried that our actions against him might actually strengthen Ahmadinejad's position at home, since his policies are crippling Iran's economy; it's better to have an adversary who is a known incompetent, than to take a chance that his successor might do better.

posted by: VentrueCapital on 09.28.07 at 01:39 PM [permalink]

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