Saturday, September 02, 2006

Iran's President Proves a Star Turn

Gareth Smyth, The Financial Times:
When Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad spiced up a press conference this week by challenging George W. Bush to a live television debate he displayed a keen grasp of American-style politics.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is skilled in the art of campaigning. This week, he impressed the visiting syndicated US columnist David Ignatius, who wrote that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad "played the roomful of 150 journalists [at the press conference] like a master performer". And his campaign film for last year's presidential election, featuring his humble home and "normal" family life, was reminiscent of former US President Bill Clinton's 1992 movie focused on a home town fortuitously called Hope.

The challenge to Mr Bush grabbed some headlines in the US, where voters are familiar with such head-to-head confrontations from presidential elections. But while the techniques may recall those of the US campaign trail, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is not about to face a ballot against Mr Bush, and his critics in Iran are questioning whether such attention-grabbing moves are likely to serve the national interest or encourage negotiations with the west over Iran's nuclear programme.

At the press conference that Mr Ignatius attended, Iranian reporters pressed Mr Ahmadi-Nejad over the government's economic record, and Etemad-e Melli, the reformist newspaper, later attacked the idea of a TV debate with Mr Bush on the grounds that it was time for negotiations, to bring people together, rather than for a debate that would reinforce polarised positions. "How can a debate between two enemies have a result other than increased hostility?" its editorial asked.

Two months ago, the same newspaper said Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's unanswered letters on world problems sent to Mr Bush in May and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in July, had failed in the most basic task of diplomatic chess - inducing a counter move.

Undaunted, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has continued on his mission, eager to carry his message to Americans through interviews with USA Today and CBS.

"What he wants is what the people want - the promotion of the country's dignity as Islamic Iran," says Mehdi Chamran, chairman of Teh-ran city council and a close political ally.

Some who know Mr Ahmadi-Nejad say his strong faith in his beliefs and ideology does not suit the give-and-take of dialogue.

"He's methodical, looking at things like an engineer," says Nasser Hadian, a politics professor at Tehran university who has known the president since school.

This week, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad made his 19th provincial tour along with his entire cabinet, telling a large crowd in the north-west city of Urumieh that the world's problems stemmed from "certain powers" who "follow Satan".

"One of the reasons they are avoiding a direct debate is that they lack logic," he said. "They are unaware the era of the use of military force has come to an end. Today, the Iranian nation's ideas, culture and logic have been overwhelmingly welcomed by the nations of the world."

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has gained a popular reputation in the wider Muslim world, where his criticism of Israel and accusations of western double standards chime with the views of many.

And for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and pre-eminent political voice in Iran, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad remains an effective communicator.

Hints of a compromise on the nuclear issue have continued and Iran's collective leadership group of about eight top officials has - regime insiders say - endorsed the idea of a deal in which Iran would enrich almost all its uranium abroad.

But Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's critics say his message does little to satisfy those seeking answers to real questions.

Some Tehran-based foreign correspondents have drawn the same conclusion. None of the political reporters of one important Asian country turned up this week for his press conference. "If he doesn't answer questions, and it's shown live on TV anyway, what's the point?" said a diplomat. READ MORE