Persian populist wins Arab embrace

Iran's Ahmadinejad is attracting fans across the Middle East for his fiery rhetoric.

In the coming weeks, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, is scheduled to fly from Dubai to Tehran, another Arab diplomat seeking to deter Iran's nuclear program.

But on the streets of many Arab states, no deterrence is necessary. In many cafes and barbershops, a nuclear Iran doesn't sound so bad. Neither is the impression that someone is finally standing up to America and Israel.

That someone is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has deftly turned the issue of Iran's nuclear aspirations against his accusers in the West and won himself a large Arab fan base along the way.

"He is a brave man," says Magdi Radwan, a Cairo teacher, as he watched TV in a downtown coffee house. "He's not afraid of Israel. He's not afraid of the Americans. He's not afraid of anyone."

Plainspoken, aggressive, and backed by vast oil and gas reserves, Mr. Ahmadinejad has inspired and entertained a ready audience of Arabs uninspired by their own leaders – leaders who tend to view the Iranian president with suspicion.

"There is a hunger for leadership in the Arab world, a hunger for change," says Shibley Telhami, an international pollster who is the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. "Iran is reaping the benefit."

The Arab states are mostly led by cautious, pro-US conservatives, like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, or by scions who inherited their thrones from charismatic fathers, like President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

They are nothing like Ahmadinejad, the stubborn and messianic son of a rural blacksmith. In his constant attacks on Israel – particularly his repeated denial of the Nazi Holocaust – Ahmadinejad has inspired a constituency far from Iran's borders.

"The Holocaust hasn't been as much of an issue in Iran as in the Arab world," says historian Shaul Bakhash. When Ahmadinejad threatens to wipe Israel off the map, "it resonates much more with the Arabs," he says.

Recent days have seen a quieter Ahmadinejad, as Iran examines a US proposal for direct talks. It would be the first such contacts since the Iranian revolution of 1979, but Tehran has so far balked at Washington's insistence that it stop enriching uranium before they can begin. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.

Even as the US and the European Union have increased pressure on Iran, support has continued to grow among Sunni Muslims, even on the Arabian Peninsula, where Shiite Iran has long been seen as a strategic threat.

Still, according to a recent poll of Iran's neighbors by the Washington-based advocacy group Terror Free Tomorrow, one-third of the respondents in Saudi Arabia – where school textbooks depict Shiites as heretics – favor a nuclear-armed Iran. In Pakistan, two-thirds wanted Iran to have the bomb.

"It is a reflection of the unpopularity of the United States," says James Dobbins, an analyst with the RAND Corporation. "Anybody who appears to be standing up to the United States is viewed positively. People are rooting for the underdog."

Analysts note that Ahmadinejad's belligerent tone may cause as much worry as admiration. A recent poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found large majorities in Egypt and Jordan had little or no confidence in him to "do the right thing" in world affairs.

But it was difficult to find such misgivings during a recent afternoon in Cairo, where Ahmadinejad was often described as an honorable man fighting the world's Goliath. By poking his finger in the eye of America and Israel, he has managed to shift the nuclear debate from Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz to the bulldozed olive groves in the Palestinian territories – and to Tel Aviv's own secret nuclear arsenal.

"It is Iran's right to have nuclear energy and nuclear weapons," says Tarek Badri, a Cairo construction foreman. "Why is Israel allowed to have these weapons and Muslim countries are not allowed?"

"Why Israel? That's the question people ask," says Abdo Saad, a Beirut-based pollster. "The Iranian president speaks to that."

The Iranian president has become a spokesman for feelings that many Arab leaders are reluctant to voice. Egyptian officials, for example, publicly say they favor a nuclear-free region, but seldom mention Israel by name. In a 2005 survey by Shibley Telhami and Zogby International, a plurality of respondents in six Arab countries said they didn't believe Iran's claims that it is not building a bomb. But 60 percent – even in the Gulf, where anti-Shiite prejudice is strongest – said Iran should be free of international pressure to stop.

While Arab leaders maintain their ties with the US, Ahmadinejad uses radical rhetoric and support for radical groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hizbullah in Lebanon, to "outflank the authoritarian Arab regimes by appealing directly to their populaces," Mr. Dobbins says.

It's difficult to separate the Palestinian issue from Iran's public support in the Arab world. In a May survey by Abdo Saad, 79 percent of Lebanese said a nuclear-armed Iran would be good for "the Palestinian struggle against Israel."

Another factor in Ahmadinejad's Arab support is the Iranian leader's homespun image.

His face is that of a Persian average Joe. Neither a cloistered aristocrat nor a septuagenarian "gerontocrat," he appears to have convinced many Arabs that he is more like them than their own leaders.

"He always wears common clothing, like his fellow countrymen," says Magdi Radwan, the Cairo schoolteacher. "He doesn't think he's better than them."

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