The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is visiting New York this week to address the UN General Assembly. In what has become an annual ritual, Mr Ahmadinejad's arrival has stirred a media circus. Many outlets are jockeying to interview him. The New York Post will be challenged to find a more striking headline than one they employed when Mr Ahmadinejad visited in 2008: “Ranting loon gets his 15 minutes of blame.”
When Mr Ahmadinejad finally addresses those gathered in the cavernous hall of the General Assembly on Thursday, his message will be focused on improving his standing in the Muslim world and bolstering his reputation as a Third World hero.
Mr Ahmadinejad has worked hard to cultivate his image as a pan-Islamic populist leader who is not afraid to stand up to the West. He quickly became more popular in parts of the Arab World than in his own country as Iranians were frustrated by his inability to improve a stagnant economy, root out corruption, and redistribute oil wealth. When Mr Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust or threatens Israel, his rhetoric resonates more in the Arab world than with Iranians, who have less at stake in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Mr Ahmadinejad clearly revels in being an international provocateur. Before last year's tainted presidential election and popular protests in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad crafted his remarks to appease conservatives inside Iran and win over the wider Muslim world. But today Mr Ahmadinejad risks appearing like just another despot – and he needs to use his United Nations platform to win back some credibility. He won't be able to erase the stain of a stolen election and his power grab. But he can rail against Israel and western domination and claim to speak for the downtrodden everywhere.
Under Iran's theocratic system, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds the true levers of power, especially on political and national security matters. But Mr Ahmadinejad's role has changed: he has seized far more authority than he had a few years ago and he is working tirelessly to eliminate his political opponents. It has become much harder to ignore his antics and poisonous rhetoric.
Mr Ahmadinejad's struggle to burnish his credibility mirrors the entire Iranian regime's quest for renewed legitimacy. After last year's election, many in the West predicted that the Iranian ruling clique, if it survived, would be weakened by internal problems and would have to abandon its regional ambitions. But contrary to that conventional wisdom, the regime crushed internal opposition and focused outward once again. Tehran has worked to extend its reach in the Gulf and the region as a whole.
This has further polarised the Middle East between what some have labelled the so-called “axis of resistance” (the anti-western front led by Iran and its allies Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas) and the “axis of accommodation” (Arab states allied with the United States). The “axis of resistance” has always positioned itself as the true representative of the majority of people in the Arab and Muslim worlds, who are stifled under regimes that “sold out” to the United States. But that image has been shaken by the Iranian election and violent suppression of protesters.
Can Mr Ahmadinejad win back some of his lost lustre? That is likely to be the major goal of his United Nations address. Many in the Arab World still admire Mr Ahmadinejad's man-of-the-people persona, which contrasts with other leaders in the region who are more distant. He has struck a chord with the Arab masses as no other Iranian leader has since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic cleric who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Mr Ahmadinejad is a Shiite and a Persian in a region dominated by Sunni Arabs. Historically, Arabs have been fearful of Iran's cultural and political influence. But he plays the anti-American and anti-Israel cards in an attempt to transcend the Persian-Arab rift and Sunni-Shiite tensions, which are on the rise because of the Iraq war.
That image is reinforced by his tendency to wear sport jackets and eschew many trappings of power.
Mr Ahmadinejad also knows how to exploit the schism between Arabs and their rulers. Since 2003, the traditional centres of power in the Arab world have been extremely nervous about the growing influence of Iran: its nuclear ambitions, its sway over the Iraqi government and Shiite militias, its support for Hizbollah and Hamas, and its alliance with Syria. Arab leaders are less worried that Iran will export the cultural aspects of Shiism than they are afraid of political Shiism spreading to the Arab world through groups such as Hizbollah.
That militia's strong performance against a far superior Israeli military during the July 2006 war electrified the Arab world. Many leaders in the Arab world fear a potent admixture of Arabism and Shiite identity aroused by Iran and Hizbollah's message of empowering the dispossessed.
Mr Ahmadinejad often tries to tap into that theme. In the process, he seeks to burnish his Third World credentials as a leader who is not afraid to venture into the lion's den – America – emerging unscathed and ever audacious. The audience Mr Ahmadinejad is trying to reach on Thursday will not be sitting in front of him in New York.
Mohamad Bazzi is a professor of journalism at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.