Is Ahmadinejad Trying To Pull Off A May Surprise?

Kamal Nazer Yasin

ust when you thought it was impossible for Iranian politics to get any murkier, controversy has erupted over whether President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a gesture during a recent visit to Switzerland to signal his interest in normalizing relations with the United States.

A report by the Persian-language service of the German media outlet Deutsche Welle on April 26 stated that during a mid-April meeting with Switzerland’s president, Hans-Rudolf Merz, Ahmadinejad expressed a desire to enlist Swiss help in normalizing relations with Iran’s long-time enemy, the United States.

“The Swiss president wrote in his notes: ’Ahmadinejad said that Iran was unhappy with the state of [Iranian-US] relations and wished to see it changed,’” according to the Deutsche Welle report as republished in a Swiss newspaper. “Ahmadinejad added that he was hopeful things would change. He said that if [US President Barack] Obama wanted, he could undertake that change. The change must occur, according to Ahmadinejad, in [the near future], since it would be much more difficult to do later. Ahmadinejad asked that the message be sent to Washington.”

On April 30, however, the semi-official Iranian Student News Agency issued a report quoting presidential adviser Ali-Akbar Javanfekr as steadfastly denying that Ahmadinejad had made any such comments to Merz. For good measure, Javanfekr derided the Deutche Welle report as a “Zionist scenario.”

But earlier, Ali Fallahian, the hardline former intelligence minister, appeared to lend credence to the idea that Ahmadinejad was exploring a diplomatic initiative toward the Untied States. “If Ahmadinejad can — through an efficacious use of diplomacy, and without loss to our national interest — foster a change in the behavior of the Americans or in the bilateral relations, so that, for instance, sanctions are lifted, then he can win the [June 12 presidential] election without any other contributing factors,” Fallahian was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.

If his rhetoric in recent days is any indication, Ahmadinejad does not appear inclined to mend ties with the United States, nor the West in general. During an April 30 trip to the Iranian city of Shiraz, Ahmadinejad characterized the Western democratic political tradition as based on “sheer lies,” according to a report distributed by the IRNA news agency.

At a UN anti-racism conference, dubbed Durban II and held in Geneva, Ahmadinejad made a spectacle of himself by making what some diplomats characterized as a “hate speech.” In his conference comments, Ahmadinejad alleged that Zionism “personifies racism,” going on to accuse Western states of encouraging the establishment of a “totally racist government in occupied Palestine.”

Experts see Ahmadinejad’s recent behavior as linked in part to Iranian domestic politics. Ahmadinejad is seeking reelection on June 12, and the recent verbal bashing of Israel, the United States and the European Union is seen by some as motivated by a desire by the president to bolster his support among conservatives.

Ahmadinejad remains the favorite to win the election, but he had proven to be a highly divisive figure domestically this campaign season. He retains the support of the two most powerful institutions in Iran — the office of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. In addition, he exerts control over key mass media outlets. But many influential conservative political organizations have proven reluctant to back him.

The level of disarray among right-wing groups heading into an election is perhaps at its highest level in the era of the Islamic republic. “There are many [groups] in which the leaders are working in one campaign headquarter while rank-and-file members work in another. . . . The hard reality is that no political [group] has so far been able to reach a consensus,” said a recent commentary published in the newspaper Tehran Emrouz, which is published under the auspices of Tehran’s moderate conservative mayor.


Editor’s Note: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.

Copyright (c) 2003 Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Open Society Institute, 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA, or

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