What's behind Iranian leader's anti-Israel rant
His zeal brings leverage at home - but not abroad.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments last week that Israel should be "wiped off the map" stirred controversy across the globe.Skip to next paragraph
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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.