Friday, May 12, 2006

Iran's President Casts Himself as Muslims' Regional Hero

Roula Khalaf, The Financial Times:
Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad stole the international limelight again this week with his long-winded letter to George W. Bush. Seen as bold by some and clumsy by others, his move was quickly dismissed by Washington as a deliberate diversion. But it may yet serve another key objective of the Iranian president to widen his appeal in the Muslim world.

The new radical face of Iran has been bidding for a leadership role beyond his country's borders. Building on his popularity at home, where Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is seen as a pious man of the people, he has sought to craft an image as a regional hero. He told students yesterday during a trip to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, that Iran was "defending the rights of many other countries" in maintaining its nuclear programme. READ MORE, a website associated with the president, has already claimed that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is the "spokesman for the silent majority of critical Muslims".

In the Arab world, defying the US and bashing Israel are the easiest way to win popular support. Political analysts say Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's radicalism is alarming Arab governments but is helping to bolster Iran's case among ordinary people in the region.

However, below the surface of approval for Tehran's right to nuclear technology (and indeed weapons) lurk historic suspicions and simmering sectarian tensions that keep a distance between the mostly Sunni Arab world and Shia Iran.

"People like what the Iranians are doing because it is what Arab [leaders] don't do - defy and challenge the US," says Mohamed el Sayyed Said, deputy director of the Cairo-based Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. But he adds: "People have become more sophisticated, they don't give any person or a doctrine leadership. And there's the sectarian feeling and the idea of Iran as a big brother, with a big influence in the Gulf."

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad often speaks of returning to the "ideals" of the Iranian revolution, including unifying the Muslim nation. But his radicalism is also intended to further Iran's national strategic interests.

Lashing out at Israel, a theme he took up again in Indonesia yesterday, helps to highlight western double-standards - tolerance of Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal and denial of Tehran's right to a nuclear programme - and rally public opinion in the region.

Analysts say popular backing for Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's is strongest in north Africa and the Levant and among the Shia populations of the Gulf. When he announced last month a breakthrough in uranium enrichment, Bahrainis sent excited text messages lauding the technological achievement.

In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, however, any admiration for Iran's defiance is tempered by the Wahabi religious establishment's resentment of Shia Muslims and Iran's regional ambitions.

"In the Gulf, Iran is not trusted. People think it seeks to control the Gulf," says Abdelaziz al-Qassim, a political analyst in Riyadh.

Perhaps the most passionate support for Tehran is to be found in Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad is Tehran's closest regional ally. But Mohammad al-Habash, head of the Damascus-based Islamic Studies Centre and an MP, acknowledges that Sunni clerics still view Iran as primarily a Shia power.

Public enthusiasm for Mr Ahmadi-Nejad also masks considerable concern of the destabilising consequences of an escalating dispute.

In Dubai, Iran's largest export market, businessmen are anxious about the impact of a worsening crisis on trade.

Domestic critics of the Iranian president, meanwhile, watch his regional strategy with alarm. Mohamed Abtahi, a former Iranian vice-president, relates a conversation he had earlier this year with a taxi driver in an Arab country. "He told me: 'Long live Ahmadi-Nejad.' I said to him your own leader can say what our president says. He said: 'No, we are developing our country and building a future,'" recalls Mr Abtahi. "So yes, a lot of people abroad support what Ahmadi-Nejad says but they don't have to pay the price for it."

Additional reporting by William Wallis in Cairo and Gareth Smyth in Tehran