Manipal, India — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has this in common with U.S. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: he too speaks directly to God. Admirers consider him to be the pilot heralding the imminent return of the Mahdi, the expected Muslim Messiah.
Less undiscerning observers consider the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran to be a buffoon, without any substantive authority inside his own country -- where the key members of the government report directly to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khamenei -- and with a diminishing support base within his own people, caused by the extreme economic mismanagement of the mullahs.
A country that ought to have enjoyed a prosperous standard of living for its 78 million people has huge pools of extreme poverty, caused by a dysfunctional system reminiscent of India during the three decades from 1955-85 of comprehensive central planning. What passes for private industry in Iran is a collection of enterprises run like feudal fiefs by those close to the supreme leader, or regarded by him as potential troublemakers needing to be pampered out of opposition.
Ahmedinejad himself came to power Iran-style, where the counted ballots threw up -- not entirely coincidentally -- the very result favored by Khamenei, who saw the current Iranian president as a poodle who would not stray from total obedience the way Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani did during his term. Unfortunately for the wily supreme leader, Ahmedinejad began to get delusions of divine greatness within a year, even while proving inept in supervising the system in a manner that would give the people of Iran enough crumbs to remain quiescent.
As in Myanmar today, spreading economic disaster is creating opposition to the regime that is pushing close to the surface. The Iranian president is the subject of lampoons disseminated through text messages and emails, not a few of which err on the side of overestimating his intellect and his capabilities.
"Professor" Ahmedinejad has meandered from mistake to mistake in his New York appearances this week, caused by as complete a lack of appreciation of the chemistry of the United States as George W. Bush has vis-a-vis Iraq. Unfortunately for those who wish to see the Iranian people finally gifted with a government more in sync with their genius, the public response in the United States and parts of Europe to the Iranian president has helped to create a sympathy wave for Ahmedinejad within the region and even among sections of his own people.
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who invited Ahmedinejad to speak at his university Monday, basked in the admiration of a domestic audience that has since 1979 been fed horror stories of the mullahs and their servitors -- a substantial part of which is true. But his unusual judgmental introduction of a guest has helped devalue the culture of his own country and generated sympathy for Ahmedinejad among the many countries where a substantial segment of the population regards the United States as a bully that has stepped clumsily and eagerly into the shoes of their former European colonizers.
In both Asia and South America there exists a respect for civility in formal dialogue that was offended by the near-hysterical tone of the "professor who just happens to be a university president." Hopefully Sept. 24 was just an off day for Bollinger, as Saddam-style declamations against those present and invited are not everywhere the preferred standard of "civilized" behavior.
That Ahmedinejad is himself responsible for the anger and contempt with which he is regarded across the world does not mitigate the negative impact of such discourtesy in those parts of the world that continue to see those of European ethnicity as past and present occupiers of lands not their own.
Fortunately for his opponents, the president of Iran gave ample evidence of being intellectually challenged -- for example by holding on to his historically outrageous assertion that Hitler's Holocaust was "not proven," or that there was no homosexuality in Iran. His comments showed insensitivity toward reality that bordered on fantasy, reinforcing Ahmedinejad's image in the English-speaking world of a boorish fanatic.
However, his defense of the indefensible has the capacity to evoke a favorable resonance in much of the Arab world, where he and his minders intend to recreate the anti-Western public coalition that was enjoyed for a decade by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser before the 1967 defeat. The very barbs and boos that were directed at the Iranian head of state by his U.S. audiences have helped set in stone the image of a Muslim leader who has the courage to tell the West where to get off. As in the case of Nasser, it may take a crushing military defeat to remove the growing halo around Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in the region.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)