"Meanwhile the world, distracted by expressions of outrage, amazement and admiration for Ahmadinezhad's mix of bravado and insanity, lost sight of the purpose behind the conference."
The Durban Review Conference held in Geneva in April was set to examine progress made toward the goals of the previous conference in 2001: to eliminate racism, xenophobia and related intolerance. Many expected the conference would condemn Israel's attack on Gazan civilians, but what transpired was indeed the opposite. The resolution passed in Geneva helped Israel's stance by commemorating the Holocaust. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad had a lot to do with this outcome, albeit inadvertently.
The conference was filled with a sense of premonition even before it was convened. Ahmadinezhad's presence had made participants uneasy. Anticipating the worst, the gentle UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon summoned Ahmadinezhad before the conference started and censored the part of his speech about the Holocaust. Ahmadinezhad, however, was on the loose again and was going to try to own the conference. Struggling hard to demonstrate to the world that the emperor had no clothes, he attacked the West for being racist, with Israel, of course, at its pinnacle in this respect. EU representatives walked out in protest, and clowns threw tomatoes at him. The plucky president however didn't care. Representatives of the "oppressed nations" remained and applauded him, which is apparently what matters to him. Meanwhile the world, distracted by expressions of outrage, amazement and admiration for Ahmadinezhad's mix of bravado and insanity, lost sight of the purpose behind the conference.
The UN chief's statement summarized Ahmadinezhad's impact: "I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite. This is the opposite of what this conference seeks to achieve." Most of the world, including Iran's staunch ally, Russia, found the speech deplorable and counterproductive. However, those who matter to Ahmadinezhad such as Hamas and Pakistani Muslim activists showed support.
Iranian television repeatedly aired footage of the applause by the third world delegates without a single reference to the walkouts or the clowns. Ahmadinezhad propagandists chose two different tactics to deal with the embarrassing event: painting the walkouts as a manifestation of the "intolerance" of western imperialists and portraying the event as a success of "epic scale". The mastermind of the strategy was most likely head of the Iranian National Security Council Saeed Jalili, who believes, based on the axiom attributed to the German strategist Carl von Clausewitz, that the best defense is offense. The method of propaganda designed to turn the truth on its head so unabashedly also might have been borrowed from a German political strategist who took the approach: the bigger the lie, the more the people will believe it.
Some Iranian journalists and political activists questioned Ahmadinezhad's speech. They felt Iran was humiliated by the event. A reporter asked Rahim-Moshaei, the president's trusted advisor, why he gave speeches that resulted in humiliation for Iran. "What a strange question," Rahim-Moshaei retorted. "There was a time when [we were so isolated] we were not even allowed to attend conferences. Now we walk in, and others walk out; do you call this our isolation?"
Some in Iran saw Ahmadinezhad's fierce attacks on the West and Israel as a calculated measure to help him win in the June 12 presidential elections. This may well be the case, if we assume Iranians are mesmerized by their president's reckless gallantry abroad. It is a fact that Ahmadinezhad has made foreign policy "successes" appear as his presidency's major achievement. It is absolutely necessary for him to look like a winner outside, as his economic and social policies inside have led to chaos and disappointment domestically.
The Geneva speech could also have been meant to rally the Arab street behind Iran by suggesting that Arab rulers were too cowardly to speak out against Israel. The more Arab governments rally against Iranian policies in the region, the more Ahmadinezhad relies on the Arab street.
We may also point to the president's pressing need to be constantly in the limelight. Yet his deep anti-Israel angst seems to reflect more than skin-deep political calculations and may require a psychological analysis. The environment where Ahmadinezhad grew up, meaning Iran under the Shah, was largely free of anti-Israel sentiments. The top leaders of the revolution, who had previously cut their teeth on the politics of Lebanon, brought home to Iran anti-Israel sentiments prevalent in Arab countries.
But Ahmadinezhad was too young at the time to be among them. So the question remains as to how he developed his anti-Israel fervor. There is no reference to such feelings or activities in his short autobiography. He grew up in a village near a small town in the desert. However, an accusation made by Mehdi Khaza'li, the progeny of the prominent Ayatollah Ahmad Khaza'li, may shed some light on Ahmadinezhad's psychosis.
Khaz'ali claims that Ahmadinezhad's real family name is "Saboorchian," a Jewish name that he changed to "Ahmadinezhad". Khazali, naming a few other prominent leaders of the Islamic Republic as new converts to Islam from Judaism, questions whether a Jewish cabal has crept in and taken over the revolutionary government! As outlandish as Khazali's claim seems to be, it has gone unchallenged. If there is any shred of truth in it, then we can see Ahmadinezhad's fierce anti-Israel sentiment under a different light. Could he be just another convert unsure of his newly acquired identity, resorting to extreme measures to prove himself? Could he be the watered down, modern equivalent of Tomas de Torquemada?
No matter what the motive, many Iranian analysts believe their president's uncontrollable rage and hatred expressed in public are helping rather than hurting Israel; the Durban II conference just provided another piece of evidence. These days, a saying attributed to an Israeli general is making the rounds among Iranians: "If Ahmadinezhad is not on the Israeli payroll, he should be."- Published 7/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development and Middle Eastern studies at Strayer University. He is a political consultant focusing on Iran. His latest work (coauthored) is "The Rise of Pasdaran" about the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Rand Corporation, 2009)
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