New York has some of the finest actors and theaters in the world, but the best production in town this week isn't on Broadway—or even off Broadway. It's taking place in Turtle Bay, home to the United Nations, and at other points around Manhattan, like Columbia University, where Mahmoud and His Traveling Troupe are playing the town for all it's worth. That's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical, Holocaust-denying president of Iran, who suddenly decided this year he wanted to lay a wreath at Ground Zero and who now affects a quizzical, somewhat hurt expression at the hatred New Yorkers are directing his way. "Usually you go to these sites to pay your respects," Ahmadinejad complained to "60 Minutes." Separately, in an interview with the Associated Press, he projected himself as a man of peace and said Iran would not attack Israel (though he did declare once again that he doesn't recognize its right to exist). And during a Q& A at the National Press Club, Ahmadinejad went so far as to acknowledge that the Holocaust may have actually happened. "Well, the reality of the Holocaust is here. It saddens us when any human being is killed: Jews, Christians, Muslims—no difference," Ahmadinejad said.
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger tried to make it a little harder for Ahmadinejad to maintain his charm offensive. Under fire for inviting the Iranian president to speak on campus, Bollinger smacked him hard in his introduction. "You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," Bollinger said in reference to Ahmadinejad's views on the Holocaust. "Will you cease this outrage?" His guest said he felt the matter should be better researched, and claimed the episode was used as a political club by Israelis against the Palestinians, asking, rhetorically, "Why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with?" He also sought to turn Bollinger's remarks against him, arguing that the tone of his introduction was an "insult to the audience" and playing up the value of a university environment, where "people are free to speak their mind." He closed his speech by claiming his country was merely motivated by "self-determination" in the nuclear matter, and declaring Iran to be a "peace-loving nation." During the question-and-answer session afterward, the man had the audience laughing and cheering some of his replies.
Why all this effort at positive vibes? Ahmadinejad is worried—about his unpopularity back home and about his isolation abroad over Iran's nuclear program. Since the spring he and his regime have been embarked on a new campaign to divide the Western powers and agencies that have been seeking to force Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment through a campaign of increasing economic pressure and sanctions. The Iranians accurately identified the weak link in this tightening chain—Mohammed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency—and they promptly went after it. Their tactic? Merry Mahmoud's barrage of Good Will. In an interview during a trip I made to Tehran in late June, I asked Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, whether it was in fact his strategy "to win over ElBaradei and the IAEA by satisfying his concerns." He smiled faintly and answered, "We have always supported the active role of the agency in this case … We are quite hopeful, and we always keep in touch with the agency. We have no problem with the agency. We welcome agency surveillance, and inspections, and their cameras are in place."
So, unsurprisingly, in subsequent months Tehran opened its arms to the IAEA and agreed to a "work plan" to address ElBaradei's questions about Iran's past nuclear practices. The result has been diplomatic success—which in Iran's case means further delay in the U.N. sanctions process, and therefore more time to enrich. (Right after the "work plan" was announced in August, Iran announced that it had installed 3,000 centrifuges for delivering higher levels of enriched uranium.) The Russians and Chinese, the two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that have been most resistant to further sanctions, promptly seized on the IAEA-Iran agreement to suggest that further discussions on a third Security Council resolution should await conclusion of the "work plan."
All of which brings us back to Mahmoud the Entertainer. The IAEA is informally a U.N. agency, and by appearing more reasonable this year during his annual visit to New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad is attempting to win over more members of the IAEA board of governors at the world body. He seems just as worried about what's happening behind his back in Tehran. As Iranian politicians begin to jockey for the next presidential election in 2009, Ahmadinejad is deeply unpopular. (Mainly over his mishandling of the domestic economy: he has strong-armed the central bank into driving down interest rates artificially, risking hyperinflation, shifted back to a command economy by slowing privatization, and misused much of the nation's oil revenue.) Recently two leading pragmatist politicians, former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have apparently joined forces to defeat him. And Rafsanjani, who after 9/11 issued many peace feelers to Washington and authorized deep cooperation with the Bush administration over post-Taliban Afghanistan, has gained in parliamentary power. So a savvy political strategy for Ahmadinejad—and despite what the White House says, Iran is the closest thing to a democracy in the Middle East outside Israel—is to appear just as reasonable with the West as Rafsanjani.
So, enjoy the show, New Yorkers.