Well, my prediction that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would make an offer to the U.S. in his U.N. address was wrong. The speech was his usual ramble–calls for global governance, complaints about inequality, references to “global arrogance,” Holocaust denial, and the like. One of the more comical moments was a reiteration of his calls for investigation of the “mysterious September 11 incident,” followed by a complaint that “the main perpetrator” had been killed rather than brought in for questioning, which he hinted was an attempt to prevent bin Laden from “identify[ing] the elements behind” the attack. 9/11 Trutherism and the notion that bin Laden was behind the attacks are apparently not contradictory in Ahmadinejad’s world.
Ahmadinejad’s speech was probably written, and was certainly vetted, by allies of Supreme Leader Khamenei. What’s noteworthy about it is its utter lack of noteworthiness. Ahmadinejad makes no substantive proposals and, critically, fails to weigh in on the Palestinian statehood question even though it has dominated almost every other speech.
This is the price of Khamenei’s burial of Ahmadinejad. Khamenei must keep himself above the fray of day-to-day politics, or he will become entangled in some failure and possibly lose his grip on power. This, and his habitual refusal of travel or meetings with non-Muslim leaders, ensures that he cannot play a public role in Iran’s foreign policy. Iranian foreign policy, however, needs a figurehead, as it has a deep basis in ideology and attempts to communicate with publics around the world–for their leaders will surely never align with Iran. Ahmadinejad had been the figurehead, and for a time his fiery rhetoric and alternative image gave him immense appeal in some sectors of the greater Muslim world. Allowing Ahmadinejad to return to that role could endanger Khamenei, so he cannot be allowed to engage the issues of the day.
It’s not clear, anyway, that Iranian foreign policy is capable of making the adjustments needed to function in the post-Arab Spring world. As a Shiite and Persian regime, Iran has an innately limited appeal beyond its borders. The Islamic Revolution has allowed it to bypass its restrictions by promoting itself as an entity that is both Muslim and authentically non-Western, major selling points in an Arab world governed by corrupt regimes backed by the West. Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah magnified this appeal when Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw in 2006–it said to the region that the Iranian style was also the most effective “Resistance” to Israel. Iran and its allies took control of the resistance narrative, and with it took control of the Palestine issue.
The Arab Spring undermined the foundations of Iranian leadership. Publics around the region realized that they could control their own political destiny. Resistance to the government was replaced by modification of the government. Meanwhile, the Palestine issue took two turns away from Iran–first, with the flotilla incident, it turned to Turkey; second, with the statehood bid, it turned to the Palestinian Authority. These two have a decidedly different character: diplomacy, politics, and governance replace the bomb belt and conspiracist ambassadors in ill-fitting suits. Iran isn’t engaging the UN on the Palestinian statehood bid because the very notion of preparing to engage Israel within international law is antithetical to the Islamic Republic’s underpinnings.
Ahmadinejad’s speech closed with an appeal for the return of the Occluded Imam from his centuries in hiding. With his fortunes having reversed and his state confronting an international order it finds inconceivable, it’s no surprise he’d want to return to the past.