A weakened Ahmadinejad in New York

Some of the stereotypes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fall short of the mark, says Jim Walsh.

Story highlights

  • Jim Walsh: Ahmadinejad comes across as a complex character
  • He says Iranian president continues to make bizarre accusations
  • He can take what seem to be rational stances based on Iran's interests, Walsh says
  • Walsh: Iranian leader has never been weaker, and is a target of clerical leadership

The weather is unseasonably muggy, there are police roadblocks and barricades on every corner, and dark limousines speed through the streets as if in a road race.

That can mean only one thing: It's the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City -- a festival of presidents, prime ministers, kings, and potentates.

I've made the pilgrimage to Manhattan the last six years to attend meetings with the notorious president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (He typically meets with a group of Iran experts each time he visits New York, but the event was canceled this year).

I have logged some 15 hours of face time with the Iranian leader, and in doing so have learned that some of the stereotypes fall short of the mark. Ahmadinejad has been described in many ways: as the powerful head of a country that is the sworn enemy of the United States, and as a crazy man willing to risk his own destruction in the name of religion.

These views are understandable given the Iranian president's often-quoted views on everything from 9/11 to the Holocaust, but this portrait of Ahmadinejad is far too simple and ultimately misleading.

So if you could meet him, what might come as a surprise?

First, like me, the Iranian head of state is short. Very short. And he is not a glad-hander. He is not a charismatic, larger-than-life individual. He is smart and fancies himself as a debater. In fact, he seems to enjoy the back-and-forth with his critics. He can lose his temper. He is a risk-taker, and he seems very confident that he is right about everything.

    He is not crazy, however, at least not in some obvious way.

    His U.N. speeches take a hard line against the United States, punctuated with bizarre accusations and traditional criticisms of the great powers. These public speeches are what most viewers see, and they are consistent with his image. In private meetings and interviews, however, he more often mentions his hope for improved U.S.-Iranian relations and floats diplomatic proposals.

    Probably the best way to understand his U.N. speeches is to look for what he does not say. This week he railed against the U.S. and NATO presence around the world but barely mentioned American efforts in Afghanistan, aside from suggesting that the September 11, 2001, attacks were a "mysterious" pretext for the war in Afghanistan and complaining that the drug trade has grown since the invasion.

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    Why? Iran is worried about instability in Afghanistan, with which it shares a border, and has more than once raised the idea that Washington and Tehran might find ways to cooperate. Despite all the rhetoric and ideological sermonizing, Iran is quite aware of its own national interests and is willing to pursue them like any "normal" country.

    Also missing from the speech was any mention of his offer on the nuclear issue: that Iran would stop enriching uranium to 20% for its medical reactor if the international community would instead sell it the fuel. This is a proposal with a complicated history, but it would be welcomed by most American nonproliferation analysts.

    The final thing that might come as a surprise is that despite all the attention on Ahmadinejad this week, he has actually never been weaker. Iran has always been internally divided, but the infighting has recently reached a new peak. The president had a confrontation with Iran's most powerful figure, Ayatollah Khamenei, and lost.

    Ahmadinejad actually boycotted cabinet meetings in a fit of pique only to have to back down. The Iranian judiciary delayed the release of the American hikers, in part to deny him a public relations coup. And most important, figures in the president's camp have been arrested, and his closest confidant, his son's father-in-law, has become a target.

    There have even been rumors that the president himself might be arrested. The embattled Ahmadinejad faces internal foes on nearly every front, which is why he probably enjoys his annual trip to New York.

    At least here he gets treated as if it were "the good old days."