Heard On the Street

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a lucky man. Even Amir supports him. Amir is a gay Iranian who left the country five years ago and now lives with his boyfriend in London. (He uses a pseudonym because he still hasn't told his family about his sexual orientation.) When Ahmadinejad claimed during a question-and-answer session at Columbia University last week that no gays lived in Iran, "[it] made me laugh," says Amir. "Ahmadinejad is an ignorant and uncultured man who doesn't know much about anything beyond the world of radical Muslims and Revolutionary Guards." Yet Amir was incensed at the hectoring introduction from Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, during which he described his guest as "a petty and cruel dictator." "He is still the elected president of my country," Amir says. "Insulting him in front of the world is insulting all Iranians."

Iranians both inside and outside the country closely followed the vitriolic reception Ahmadinejad received in New York last week. (One tabloid declared THE EVIL HAS LANDED on his first day in town.) But if critics like Bollinger thought they were demonstrating solidarity with Iran's long-suffering moderates, they were mistaken. "The Islamic Republic and its president have never been insulted in an official setting like this," says Mohsen Armin, a prominent reformist politician. Dissident bloggers also came out in support of Ahmadinejad. Other opponents argue that he should have walked off the stage at Columbia in protest. Former president Mohammed Khatami agreed with Amir: "This is tantamount to insulting our nation," he told the Iranian Students' News Agency. In an Iranian culture that prizes hospitality to guests—and that loves a good martyr—Ahmadinejad will arguably return to Tehran in a stronger position than when he left.

Prior to his New York trip, in fact, the Iranian president was struggling at home. With oil prices at nearly $80 a barrel, ordinary Iranians expect Ahmadinejad to fulfill his promises to fill their bellies and their wallets. Yet rents and food prices continue to rise, making most feel poorer than ever. Infighting within the government has led to a number of high-profile resignations—forced and voluntary—over the last few months. Crackdowns on young women with too-stylish headscarves, on young men with tattoos and too much gel in their hairdos—even on pet-shop owners—have alienated the middle classes. That's not to mention the onslaught against feminists, labor activists and teachers.

Several officials close to the Iranian leadership, who declined to be identified discussing internal deliberations, say that in recent months Ahmadinejad has been advised by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be less combative. Prior to the president's trip, Khamenei dispatched emissaries to Europe and to Arab capitals to soothe worries over Iran's nuclear program and its influence in Iraq. In interviews just before leaving, Ahmadinejad also sounded much milder than before. And in any case, Iranians understand that he has far less power than is commonly realized by outsiders—he is neither head of state nor the commander in chief. That's why many are puzzled by the treatment he received in New York. "Ahmadinejad tried not to be too controversial or instigate anyone during this trip," says reformist politician Hossein Marashi, the brother-in-law of Ahmadinejad's archenemy, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani. The reception, he says, "manifested the weakness of political culture [in America]."

The on-and-off support of Iranians for Ahmadinejad has become a recurring theme of his presidency. And American rhetoric is most often the cause of his rebounds. In this case, Rafsanjani said last week, "the main loser was the Americans. They are being defeated by the psychological warfare that they have started against us." After decades of superpower interference in their affairs, Iranians are particularly prickly about their independence. Reformists say they would much rather do without the high-flown declarations of support they get from the Bush administration and its conservative allies—the talk only makes them targets. "I just want to say, 'Shut up!' " says feminist Shadi Sadr. "How dare you sit in an office thousands of kilometers away endangering our lives here."

Sitting under a large poster of Andy Warhol's design for the Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers" album cover, which shows the crotch of a man in tight jeans, Amir is as anti-American as Ahmadinejad's bearded allies. "Listen, as a gay man living in Iran, I couldn't express myself and be what I am. My brother went to jail for eight years because he opposed this regime. Two of my cousins were killed because they were communists. Despite all that, if one day America or Israel attack Iran, I'll go back and defend my country. I'll do that regardless of who is the president and how gay people are treated in Iran." That's the voice Washington should be listening to, not Ahmadinejad's.