The arrival of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York for the UN general assembly has brought a predictable media frenzy. Iran’s disputed president has already done interviews with a few experienced US journalists such as Christiane Amanpour and is due on the usual round of American TV studios with the Charlie Rose show on PBS, and CNN’s Larry King Live.
Ahmadinejad cherishes these moments as he is keen to use every chance to publicise his political designs. The BBC even went so far as to call him a “master of spin”; others say he has “become more articulate and polished”. And now a debate is developing about why such experienced journalists rarely manage to crack his defences or get anything new out of him.
One reason is that interviewers seem unable to get away from a fixed set of questions and a specific mindset they have of Ahmadinejad. They tend to repeat the same questions over, and with time he has become skilled at replying to them. Some interviewers don’t keep up with the fact that since the imposition of sanctions he has said repeatedly that he does want to talk to the US or about a new nuclear deal. They keep asking whether he will.
Ahmadinejad has moved on over the past six months and has new designs for the three remaining years of his presidency. It could be argued that these are the kinds of topics that need to get more coverage in global television interviews if we are to avoid having another regional dictator.
Ahmadinejad is the most hardline rightwing president in Iran since the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Since the disputed presidential elections of 2009 he has moved further to the right and combined this with an appeal to the young.
He seems to be nurturing a new doctrine of religious nationalism to attract the young. Whereas previously his stress was more on Islam, now he glorifies the role of Iran as the true bastion of Islamic culture. His AP interview in the US reflects this ambition.
Regionally, he stresses the old historical notions of the “brotherhood” of the Persian-speaking and Islamic countries of the region. With the return last week of the Cyrus cylinder to Iran, Ahmadinejad likened himself to the Iranian king, Cyrus the Great, thereby parting from his previous stance on Iranian kings. Previous to that, he likened himself to Iran’s popular nationalist leader, Mohammad Mossadeq, who nationalised oil against the British just after the second world war.
In recent weeks he has raised – to unprecedented levels – his confrontational style against the ruling clique in Iran. Only last week he announced in direct contravention of Iran’s constitution that he is now the number two power in Iran after the supreme leader and he will define political decisions. By making this statement he was challenging the words of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, who put parliament above all powers. His arch-rival, the conservative speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, reminded him that the parliament will stand up to dictators. He warned against the new “Iranian doctrine” and ridiculed Ahmadinejad, saying that “this kind of talk is not up to your level”.
Yet there seems to be no stopping Ahmadinejad. He is even dismissive of Iran’s leader, Ali Khamenei. He recently appointed the controversial Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei as his special representative in the Middle East. This seemed like a direct insult against the leader who had forbidden the appointment of Rahim Mashaei as vice-president because of his stance on Israel. Yet no one could deter Ahmadinejad from the decision, not even his guru, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, who openly criticised him.
Rahim-Mashaei is his school friend and colleague in the Basij militia and Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and the two men are now working more closely on this new “Iran doctrine”.
Ahmadinejad has angered the supreme leader, Iranian diplomats, and parliament by bringing in more of his former IRGC colleagues, creating four special adviser posts – due to become six – with executive mandates, so that Iran’s regional policy will be firmly in his control.
The IRGC continues to give him support. Recently it admitted openly to the brutal crackdown of the opposition after the disputed elections. Moreover, this powerful organisation – angered by punitive international sanctions – has defined its regional ambitions, and displayed its military might during the past month.
The regional consequences of these ambitions are outlined in a recent study of Iran’s military capability, showing that Iran has developed a wide mix of land, air, and naval capabilities that can threaten its neighbours, challenge the US, and affect other parts of the Middle East and Asia.
Thus Ahmadinejad’s showmanship in television interviews in the US should not be viewed lightly. It should be contrasted with the fact that he has more than 50 journalists in prison in Iran. Since his serious abuse of human rights is well documented he should never be allowed to get away with his ridiculous claim that “in Iran everyone is free” nor be left to use “the art of slipping and sliding around even the most seasoned interviewers”
Massoumeh Torfeh, a research associate at SOAS specializing on the politics of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.