The letter by President Ahmadinejad to President Bush generated a lot of speculations both inside Iran and in the outside world. It was the first time that a leader of the Islamic Republic had directly written to the leader of the “Great Satan”, and used polite terminologies in addressing them. At home, the reformists welcomed it as a breakthrough in the long-standing estrangement between the two governments, while the conservative press hailed it as a grand gesture on par with letters sent out some fourteen centuries ago by the Prophet Mohammad to leaders of the then empires inviting them to the bosoms of Islam. The latter group knew more about the Islamic President than the formers, and their judgements must be nearer to the truth. Ahmadinejad seems to be on a Messianic mission to save the world.
The Islamic Republic President appeals to the religious sentiments of President Bush, and in religious texts finds a common language to talk to him. He reminds him of the follies of the Americans past and present and puts America in the duck for many of the ills of the world. He advises him that “democracy and liberalism” have failed the humankind and invites him to join “people of the world” by submitting to the truth. He is there to offer him salvation. At the same time, he warns him of the consequences for people who do not follow the right path. He ends his 18-page letter by the words “will of God will prevail over all things” in order to remind the leader of the most powerful nation in the world that some other forces are in action and that he better watch himself lest he finds himself in the wrong camp.
That the letter has been dismissed by its addressee is not of much concern to its writer. It is said that when messengers delivered the Prophet Mohammad’s letter to the leader of the Persian Empire it was dealt with contempt. Soon afterwards, the Empire was trembling under the feet of Moslem soldiers, and then it was history. It appears that Mr. Ahmadinejad is on a similar mission. His meteoric rise to power and unparalleled fame on the world stage has given him a sense of importance and relevance not enjoyed by any his predecessors. And his belief in the imminent appearance of the Shi’ah’s Hidden Imam has given him a sense of urgency to pursue his noble aims with speed and not to be afraid of infidel powers on earth. For him, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the manifestation of divine power on earth and he has the mission to make it the pivotal centre of the Islamic world and the vanguard of the battle of truth against untruth.
The confident tone present throughout the letter, and which is a characteristic of Ahmadinejad’s public utterings too, belies the absurdity of his mission and the paradigms of his references. He apparently believes in what he is saying, and says them with total conviction. Even those who do not understand Persian may be able to detect his tone of confidence in delivering his speeches. In diplomatic circles too, he has no qualms in expressing his thoughts bluntly and forcefully, and he seems to enjoy fully doing it too!
Or at least that’s what appears to be on the surface. Indeed, while the letter is addressed to President Bush, its real audience may be the disadvantaged and disillusioned Moslems around the world. Mr. Ahmadinejad is trying to cast himself amongst Moslems as the latter-day Saladin and ready to take on the leaders of the world infidels by their horns. At the time that the standing of America and Israel are at their lowest amongst the disillusioned Moslems, it is very convenient for him to be overtly anti-American and anti-Israel. And the more confident and bold he is in his utterings and rebuffs of the West, the more he will score in that huge constituency. The letter may indeed be yet another means in his disposal to prove his credentials for leading the Moslem world in its historic battle against the western “crusaders”. And the evidences suggest that he may be winning in this strategy.
In Iran, he has managed to turn the question of nuclear energy into a national issue and raise the national pride in its defence. Today many Iranians have bought his thesis that the West is against Iran acquiring nuclear technology know-how for civilian use. In order to do that, he has portrayed himself as a born-again nationalist following the footsteps of Mossaddegh the hero of the oil nationalisation movement in 1950’s. Similarly, he has put on the mantle of anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism for the benefit of the Moslem world. Contrary to the common perception, the latter strategy does not have much appeal inside Iran. But it does have a powerful echo in the post 9/11 Moslem societies, and in the eyes of many may turn Ahmadinejad into an Islamic hero. And so, Ahmadinejad is trying to model himself after Mossaddegh on the national level and after Saladin on the regional and international level.
In perusing this strategy, while following his nuclear ambitions, Ahmadinejad is not much afraid of their repercussions in terms of military attacks by Americans and/or the Israelis. Indeed, he may be trying to provoke them into it. He is calculating that there is no appetite for a full-scale invasion of Iran a la Afghanistan and Iraq (that is unfeasible and would spell a catastrophe far bigger than what happened in Iraq). And as far as he is concerned, any form of attack will strengthen the Islamic Republic, leave him and his masters in power, and it may also raise his status in the Islamic world (though the reaction of the Iranians may be quite different). In such a scenario he thinks that he will have the opportunity to take revenge against the Americans and other western powers involved in the attack using the Islamic Republic’s many agents around the world. In that regard, he sees himself and the Islamic Republic as the eventual winner.
And so as the international crisis over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program worsens, Mr. Ahmadinejad is continuing with his grand gestures of defiance and brinkmanship to the very limit. And he finds eager listeners for what he is saying across the Moslem world – from university students in Jakarta to hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. It is only a matter of time before the crisis gets out of hand and a full confrontation between Iran and the West/Israel follows. The only thing that may realistically prevent that happening is a change in the Iranian leadership/regime, initiated by Iranians themselves, that sees Ahmadinejad out of power and a more sensible and transparent foreign policy in place. At the same time it should be said that any military attack against Iran not only will have disastrous effects on the population, but it would also strengthen the Islamic Republic regime (at least in the short term), weaken the democratic opposition, and unleash a new wave of terrorism around the world.
Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for Manshoor 81 (Charter 2003). His weekly column on Iranian affairs (in Persian) appears in Iran Emrooz and Iranian publications. He lives in England.