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The Truth Behind Iran's Ahmadinejad

The Truth Behind Iran's AhmadinejadAccording to The Fletcher School's Vali Nasr, the Iranian president is a leader whose real power is mainly derived from influence and perceptions.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.01.07] An address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University last Monday sparked protests and dialogue about the controversial leader, who has questioned the veracity of the Holocaust and boasted of Iran's nuclear ambitions. According to The Fletcher School's Vali Nasr, Ahmadinejad's power is in the eye of the beholder.

"It's much easier to undermine, get rid of, or sideline a leader if the world doesn't know his name. When he's on the front page of every daily in America, it's much harder," Nasr, a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School, told "Ahmadinejad is relishing this controversial relationship, the whole circus benefits him."

Nasr is a widely published author on Islamic and Middle Eastern issues. His recent books include Democracy in Iran and The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Tufts in 1983 and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School in 1984 before going on to get his Ph.D.

As Nasr clarified to, Ahmadinejad is not the top leader of Iran and does not have power over Parliament or the Judiciary, nor does he oversee any of the powerful councils and foundations in the country. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the ultimate decision maker.

"The paradox is this: When his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, was president, the U.S.'s position was, 'There's no point in engaging with him because he's powerless and meaningless,'" Nasr explained to "And now we have all this focus on the current president."

The difference between Khatami and Ahmadinejad, says Nasr, is that while Khatami was a reformer, Ahmadinejad wants to go back to the Iran of two decades ago-a stance that Khamenei favors.

Ahmadinejad, Nasr explained, was elected on promises of more jobs and a stronger economy but has not lived up to those promises. For Iranians, Nasr noted, those issues matter more than nuclear capability and the other hot-button issues Ahmadinejad is known for in the US.

"All these other issues divert attention away from his economic and domestic record," Nasr told "If he were to stand on this in an election, he would be creamed." He still, however, has the support of Khamenei, says Nasr.

The American assault on Ahmadinejad-including his confrontational welcome at Columbia last week-only buffers him from critique at home, says Nasr, and his outrageous statements only accord him more clout.

"Nobody told him to go and say that Iran is looking to wipe Israel off the map or to deny the Holocaust, but once he said those things, he forces the Iranian government to catch up with him and it becomes part of the international dispute with Iran," he told "Ahmadinejad's power in Iran comes not from controlling the lever of power, but controlling the debate."

The American media, Nasr told, has helped perpetuate the notion of Ahmadinejad as holding substantive power.

"He's seen as the man with his finger on the button that can annihilate Israel and Iran's neighbors, that he makes foreign policy decisions," explained Nasr. "For the American public, Ahmadinejad captures the Bush administration's demonization of Iran."

But for Iranians watching Ahmadinejad's interactions with the United States unfold, there is another dimension to their president worth noting.

"Iranians find the Western reaction insulting and a sign of belligerence, but Ahmadinejad has also not emerged as a statesman or a diplomat," Nasr told the Washington Post. "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."

While in New York, Ahmadinejad also delivered an address to the United Nations Security Council that Nasr told USA Today was "boilerplate Ahmadinejad."

"He's arguing that Iran is not an odd, rogue country with a deranged foreign policy but that Iran's foreign policy is very mainstream," the Tufts expert told the newspaper.


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