What's behind Iranian leader's anti-Israel rant
His zeal brings leverage at home - but not abroad.
BAGHDAD — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments last week that Israel should be "wiped off the map" stirred controversy across the globe.
The remarks were a slap in the face to European countries who have been more inclined than the US to give the Iranians a chance to convince the world that their nuclear program is peaceful and that they aren't a threat to their neighbors.
Yet it remains a fact of life in the Middle East that statements like Mr. Ahmadinejad's are wildly popular. This might seem odd, given the fact that many Middle Eastern states are closer to Israel than ever before. On Friday, for instance, Egypt announced the expansion of a program in which the US gives tariff breaks to local firms that do business with Israel.
But such improvements are mostly confined to the state-to-state level, and usually depend on the ability of nondemocratic governments like Egypt or Jordan to ignore popular distaste for Israel. In states like Iran - which has diplomatic relations with neither Israel nor the US - there are fewer perceived costs for such angry tub-thumping, at least for a man like Ahmadinejad.
So in the context of modern Iranian history, the fiery rhetoric of the populist leader at a "World Without Zionism" conference was hardly surprising. Ahmadinejad, whose supporters are drawn by the zeal with which he advocates both the anti-imperial claims and social justice goals of Iran's Islamic revolution, appears more interested in shoring up his credentials at home than appeasing the US or Israel.
"I don't think he understands that if he says something like this the world will hear him. I think he's still in mayor of Tehran mode,'' says William Beeman, an anthropology professor at Brown University and author of "The 'Great Satan' vs. The 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."
"He's definitely appealing to his base and his base are a group of people who are involved with a revolutionary rhetoric,'' says Mr. Beeman. Some 300 people turned up Sunday at the offices of the Headquarters for Commemorating Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement to volunteer for suicide bomb missions against Israel, according to the Associated Press.
"Taking an anti-Israel position is certainly not going to hurt him in the public mind," says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University. He likens Ahmadinejad's appeal to Iranian voters to the appeal of President Bush in the US - the projection of a plain speaking man who means and does what he says. "His attitude says that 'no one is going to shut me up' and probably goes down pretty well with [average people] in Tehran."
But "Death to Israel" cries from the top are seen as not serving Iran's interests anymore by much of the political elite and serve to further isolate the country.
Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, distanced himself from the president's remarks. So did Iran's foreign ministry and the Iranian embassy in Russia, a potential key ally in any UN Security Council showdown over the country's nuclear program. By Sunday, Ahmadinejad appeared to backpedal.
He told the state news agency that political steps are the only ones that can solve the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. "The only logical solution ... is to hold free elections with the participation of Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories, and a recognition of the nation's legitimacy,'' he said after meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei.
To analysts, the episode is an accurate reflection of Ahmadinejad's distaste for Israel, but also represents on-the-job training for a man without a foreign policy background, full control of his own government, or much experience in the global spotlight.
A deeply pious man who seems committed to the ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution, Ahmadinejad is also a bit of an outsider to the political and clerical establishment in Tehran, a sort of Middle Eastern Hugo Chávez minus the full control to put his ideas into action.
"I think that it's due to Ahmadinejad's naiveté,'' says Beeman. "I don't think he expected it to be the firestorm that he touched off. This rhetoric is routinely used in various other places in Iran on public occasions and not noticed, because it isn't the president saying it."
Indeed, attacks on Zionism and Israel are daily staples of not just the Iranian press, but across the Muslim world. They're part of the backdrop to everything from democracy rallies in Egypt to Friday prayers in Indonesia and debates in Pakistan over whether it should accept emergency earthquake aid from Israel.
But while that rhetoric remains as common as ever, it's also true that some Muslim states are drawing closer to Israel. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has said recently that he wants to move his country closer to normalization with Israel, something he and other leaders feel has been made easier by Israel's Gaza withdrawal.
Egypt, the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel, distanced itself from the Iranian leader's comments. "Iran and Israel are two United Nations member states, and such a phenomenon (the disappearance of a member state) was never seen in history," Egypt's foreign minister told reporters. On Friday, the UN Security Council - including Algeria - condemned Ahmadinejad's remarks.
But just as the withdrawal from Gaza is only the first step on a path to peace for Israel and the Palestinians, so is it only a tentative first step that could change Muslim attitudes towards Israel. Unlikely to change overnight is the deep-set belief among many Muslims that Zionism relies on depriving Palestinians of their political rights.
Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who criticized Ahmadinejad's comments, made this clear when he was also careful to denounce Israel. If "human rights are rights and oppression and aggression are wrong, then America and Europeans should accept the true human rights. The situation in Israel doesn't correspond to this," Rafsanjani said last week, as reported by the Iranian state news agency. "We don't have a problem with Judaism.... Our argument is with Zionism."