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Iran's Leader Plays the Pan-Muslim Populist

Author: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
September 22, 2009


NEW YORK -- When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the United Nations on Wednesday, he will speak past the world leaders gathered in the cavernous hall of the General Assembly. His message will be crafted to improve his standing in the Muslim world and bolster his reputation as a Third World hero.

In a region ruled by kings and despots, 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 with Arabs than among his own people, who were frustrated by his inability to improve a stagnant economy, root out corruption, and redistribute oil wealth. When Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust or threatens Israel, his rhetoric resonates more with Arabs than Iranians, who are Persian and have far less at stake in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ahmadinejad revels in being an international provocateur. Before the rigged presidential election and popular uprising in Iran, the controversy generated by his remarks would appease conservatives inside Iran and win over the wider Muslim world. But today Ahmadinejad is just another despot in the Middle East -- 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, emphasize the plight of the Palestinians, and claim to speak for the downtrodden everywhere.

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