Has Ahmadinejad lost his global following?

After stamping out election protests, Iran may see its "resistance" brand weaken. The first big test: The Non-Aligned Movement summit, which opens Wednesday in Egypt.

Vahid Salemi/AP
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, waits to receive Omani Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, unseen, for a meeting at the presidency, in Tehran Saturday.

For 30 years, Iran has cast itself as a leader of resistance to Israeli and Western policies, and few of its leaders have done as much for that image as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Under Mr. Ahmadinejad, Iran's "resistance" brand has gone global, challenging Western hegemony in the name of defending the globally downtrodden and winning allies from Lebanon to Venezuela while drawing harsh criticism from the United States.

But analysts say Iran's resistance image has been challenged by Ahmadinejad's controversial June 12 reelection, after which hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the street to protest what they say is a fradulent vote. Even so, the idea of "resistance" is hard-wired into the Islamic Republic, and many expect the president to strongly reassert it by turning up verbal attacks on Israel and the West.

His first big chance comes in an unlikely place: Egypt. One of Iran's biggest regional rivals, Egypt, this week hosts a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a cold war alliance of developing states. Ahmadinejad is scheduled to attend the event, which begins Wednesday.

He will be the first Iranian leader to come here since the revolution, and few expect him to be a demure guest.

"He is coming to the summit to send a message to the United States, Israel, and Europe," says Nabil Abdel Fattah, assistant director of Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank with government ties. "He will keep attacking Israel and defending himself and the Iranian regime against critics in the West who have been critical of the fairness of the last election," he says.

Iranian discontent could spill over

But will fiery rhetoric be enough? For Arabs, Mr. Abdel Fattah says Ahmadinejad's words may not carry the punch they used to because the public reaction to Iran's crackdown has "generally not been positive."

"People can see now that Iran has the same authoritarian political systems as the Arab world," he says. "Ahmadinejad is not a hero."

Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the June 12 election with the blessing of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi protested the results, citing irregularities, and set off the largest demonstrations in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Josh Stacher, a professor of Middle East politics at Kent State University, says that Arab familiarity with stolen elections in their own countries, coupled with the sight of large antiregime protests, may have hurt Ahmadinejad's popularity in the region.

"Every state in the region has a president or a king that the people on the ground disagree with, and every state has seen rigged elections," he says. "The amount of people on the streets in Tehran show that people there aren't buying Ahmadinejad's resistance rhetoric anyway, and that could spread through the neighborhood."

That would be a relief for Egypt, which – like many other Sunni Arab countries – has long been wary of Iran's revolutionary rhetoric and its popularity for its resistance role. But the powerful display of street power following last month's election is even more worrying to autocratic regimes.

Iran's resistance role bigger than Ahmadinejad

But no matter how badly the regime's credibility has been compromised, however, the idea of resistance is unlikely to go away, says Christian Rasmus Elling, a guest scholar of Iranian politics at New York University, because "it has been a main feature of the Islamic Republic since the revolution."

It has also been "structurally developed" into Iran's regional role, says Mr. Stacher, which would have probably remain unchanged even if Mr. Mousavi or Mr. Karoubi had won in June.

"Regardless of the winner of the election, its role in resistance to the West would stay in place," he says. "It's bigger than Ahmadinejad; it's about where Iran is in the region."

Besides, the countries that Iran claims to resist have not gone anywhere, says Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and author of "Taking on Tehran: Strategies for Confronting the Islamic Republic."

He says the resistance narrative is not about the legitimacy of Iran's leaders and "has not been dented at all" by claims of election fraud.

"The ideology of resistance has a lot of staying power because it is not driven by the legitimacy of the Iranian regime but by the persistence of adversaries like the United States and Israel," says Mr. Berman. "The people they are resisting are still around."

Fans even in Egypt, despite sour relations with Iran

Iran's adversaries are close allies of Egypt, which has led to sour relations between the two since 1979. That makes Ahmadinejad's scheduled attendance to the summit, and his possible use of it as a soapbox, awkward.

Hussein Amin, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, is critical of Iran's stance on Israel and nuclear weapons. But he admits that even here Ahmadinejad has fans among the country's disadvantaged that admire his defiance of the West.

"Most of the elite here are against him, but the middle and lower classes – especially the pious – they of course support him," he says. "No one knows the impact of his visit, and that is what is worrying."

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