Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ahmadinejad a Winner?

All politics is local. That motto--now a cliche--has long been attributed to Tip O'Neill, the onetime Democratic House Speaker. But that rule rules far beyond Tip's world of rough-and-ready Irish-American politics. Look at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president took a few lumps today when he showed up to speak at Columbia University. Lee Bollinger, the school's president, began the event by slamming him on the obvious fronts: the denial of political freedom in Iran, Ahmadinejad's support of Holocaust denialism, his refusal to recognize Israel, Iran's support of groups that engage in terrorism, Iran's nuclear program, and Iran's involvement in Iraq. It's not often you see a college professor call a leader of a state an "uneducated" thug to his face.

During his presentation and the Q&A, Ahmadinejad didn't directly address most of the assault. He said what was expected: Iran does no wrong and wants peace with the United States. He also said that homosexuality does not exist in Iran, and he noted that Iran and the United States share something in common: capital punishment. He came across as crafty and self-justifying--the way most rulers of repressive regimes are. He got much of the Columbia audience on his side when he began his remarks by chastising Bollinger for displaying bad manners. In Iran, he noted, we would not invite someone to speak and then be so rude to him before he said anything. (But he did lose the crowd with his comments on homosexuality.)

Afterward, a bunch of journalists I know tried to determine if Ahmadinejad's performance would help or hurt neocons who'd like to see the Bush administration sock it to him before Bush leaves office. I'm not sure Ahmadinejad's visit will change that equation much one way or the other. But my hunch--as an unlicensed political handicapper--is that the appearance will help Ahmadinejad back home. His government is not popular these days. Petrol prices are high. The economy of Iran is lousy--and that's particularly bad news for a nation where something like 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30. How do you say "restive" in Persian?

Though Americans might have a hard time comprehending this, there is still national pride in Iran. Which is why many Iranians apparently support the country's nuclear program. So I'm betting that by coming to America and standing up to (and holding his own with) the people who once overthrew the government of Iran (and then supported the brutal Shah for decades), Ahmadinejad will score points on the home front. Think of Rudy Giuliani bashing MoveOn; it's good for the base. And when things get tough, you really need your base. So his visit to Columbia might have been driven by his domestic political needs.

To tease this out further, if Ahmadinejad does garner a boost in Iran from his day in the big city, will that help him and fellow hard-liners in Tehran? I don't know. But it's worth pondering.

Ahmadinejad certainly lost the debate at Columbia on points. But that wasn't the issue for him. CNN's Bill Schneider used to do a feature called the "political play of the week." If he had to hand out such an award this Friday, I know who ought to receive it.

Posted by David Corn at September 25, 2007 12:05 AM