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Ahmadinejad's Foreign Policy
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inaugurated as Iran's president in August 2005, almost immediately created a storm of controversy. He stunned the diplomatic world on 17 September 2005 with his speech at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. The diplomatic world was anxiously waiting for the new president to announce his proposals to resolve Iran's problems with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Instead, Ahmadinejad made harsh verbal attacks on the United States and Israel. On 26 October Ahmadinejad delivered a fiery speech at a state-sponsored conference held at the Ministry of the Interior titled "The World without Zionism" in which he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and threatened that any government in the Islamic world that recognized Israel "will be eternally disgraced and will burn in the fury of the Islamic nations." On 8 December, while attending an emergency meeting of the heads of the Organization of the Islamic Conference held in Mecca, where his Saudi hosts were attempting to project a moderate image of Islam, Ahmadinejad cast doubt on whether the Holocaust had occurred and demanded that Europeans move Israel to Germany or Austria. Back home in Iran, Ahmadinejad called the Holocaust a "myth" and demanded that Jews in Israel be moved to Europe, America, Canada, or Alaska. Finally, on 8 May 2006, Ahmadinejad wrote a 3,901-word letter to President George W. Bush reiterating some of these themes.

Ahmadinejad's remarks present three analytically significant questions:

  • Are Ahmadinejad's words off-the-cuff remarks, personal opinions of the inexperienced president, made purely for domestic consumption, or are his remarks an accurate reflection of the policies of the government or the regime?
  • If Ahmadinejad's words accurately express the new policies of the government or the regime, what are some possible rationales behind these new policies?
  • Are Ahmadinejad's remarks intended as mere verbal assaults to extract minor concessions, or do they portend a more bellicose and aggressive policy?

Dominant Explanations

Many observers had initially assumed that Ahmadinejad's incendiary rhetoric was purely for domestic consumption and was not intended for foreign audiences. However, in his private talks with foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany, Ahmadinejad spoke the same words. In a private meeting held at the UN headquarters, Ahmadinejad contemptuously told Jack Straw, Philippe Douste-Blazy, and Joschka Fischer: "Do not dare to threaten us with sanctions or you will regret it. . . . You just do what your American masters tell you to do." The meeting was intended to assist Ahmadinejad in understanding the gravity of the situation facing Iran's nuclear file and ways he could resolve the situation diplomatically. Instead, it left the European Union–3 (EU-3) foreign ministers stunned.

Most analysts have argued that Ahmadinejad's remarks have been due to his inexperience, and do not reflect the policies of the regime, and that the supreme leader and other leaders of the oligarchy are reining him in. Their argument is based on three observations. First, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delegated more powers to Ali Akbar Rafsanjani as chairman of the Council for the Expediency of the System. Second, four of Ahmadinejad's nominees for cabinet posts were initially rejected by the hard-line Majlis. Third, Ahmadinejad's first three nominees for minister of oil were rejected, and only the fourth one, who had been serving as deputy, was eventually confirmed.

One of the more extreme examples of the dominant view is expressed by Columbia University professor Gary Sick, who stated, "Ahmadinejad's role has been very substantially reduced. . . . He's been in office for a hundred days. He's done nothing. I think people are looking around and saying 'This guy is a disaster.' I think they [the regime] are going to isolate him and quarantine him." In January 2006 Sick reiterated his view, saying, "I think there's no question whatsoever that internally, without a lot of fanfare, the leadership of Iran is letting Ahmadinejad know in no uncertain terms that this is very dangerous and it's very harmful to Iran."

In this essay, I intend to show that Ahmadinejad's comments were not inadvertent words of an inexperienced official. Rather, they were carefully chosen...