Ahmadinejad steals 'smart power' torch
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
TEHRAN - Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad seems to only gain in strength
with the growing intensity of North American and European attacks against him.
Such is the global community's slide into competing camps, his championing of
the nuclear "have-nots'' - the bulk of the world's population - gives him the
demeanor of a peace activist who speaks the language of disarmament.
Irrespective of the Western governments' boycott and negative media coverage,
his appearance at the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference
in New York this week contained all the elements of an historic speech.
Ahmadinejad toned down his customary incendiary delivery, but lost none of his
precision targeting as he focused on the
shortcomings of global disarmament, a flawed US nuclear doctrine, and the
various steps necessary to achieve complete nuclear disarmament, including a
revision of the United Nations' power structure that he said contributed to
perpetuating the present nuclear status quo.
Speaking immediately after a representative from the Non-Aligned Movement
(NAM), who also lambasted the attempts of Western governments to curtail
developing nations' access to peaceful nuclear technology, Ahmadinejad directed
his usual barrage of criticisms at Israel and the United States, albeit it in
United States officials led by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were quick
to dismiss the speech as "aggressive" and aimed at "diverting attention" from
Iran's alleged nuclear proliferation activities. Clinton categorically claimed
that Iran was in breach of its NPT obligations - a charge flatly denied by
Iran, which today boasts of extensive cooperation with the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA).
The feisty Ahmadinejad, taking his disarmament cause to the US television
networks after his speech, has definitely tapped into the reservoir of "smart
power" that Clinton claimed for herself at her nomination hearing over a year
ago. The Iranian president showed himself as being not short on wit or
initiative when in one interview he snapped back at accusations that Osama bin
Laden was living in luxury in Tehran by saying the al-Qaeda leader could be
alive and well in Washington DC.
If "smart power" means exploiting opportunities as they show up, and using the
soft power of public diplomacy to one's advantage, then there is no doubt that
Ahmadinejad's recent nuclear moves mean that in a sense he has stolen the
"smart power" torch and may, in fact, score a solid victory in the battleground
of the review conference.
His moves have included initiating a disarmament conference in Tehran followed
by the sudden decision to lead the charge at the New York conference and zero
in on NPT's Article VI on disarmament at a time when Western powers long
planned to focus on NPT articles pertaining to access to nuclear technology and
An early indication of this development can be seen in the quick turn-around by
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who initially slighted Ahmadinejad by leaving
the UN hall right before Ahmadinejad's speech and yet could be seen shaking
hands with Ahmadinejad on the front page of Tehran dailies. This was most
likely a result of an assessment by Ban to avoid the damage to his own
reputation if he simply emulated the negative reaction of Western officials and
disregarded that Ahmadinejad's popularity in many corners of the world has
skyrocketed due to his singular defiance of Western will.
This is in light of his speech's attack on global hegemony and his proactive
"eleven recommendations", including the censure by the IAEA of nuclear-weapons
states that threaten other states, as well as the idea of a Middle East nuclear
Concerning the latter, Egypt in both its pre-conference working paper and
conference presentation, has prioritized implementation measures for the goal
of a regional nuclear-free zone that was adopted at the1995 NPT review
conference. Ignoring Israel's plea to back down, Egypt, as the current chair of
the NAM, is obligated to reflect the powerful sentiments of NAM member states,
otherwise it would lose legitimacy.
In fact, the same argument applies to the US and other Western governments, who
signed up to the 1995 idea of ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass
destruction and yet have been anything but outspoken about pursuing it, given
their support for Israel. As a result, the conference's polarization over this
thorny issue is already fully manifested, and the question is how damaging the
rift will be to the conference's unity and ultimate purpose?
There is little doubt that the Iran-Egypt concert on this and other related
issues is considered a serious menace by Western governments who dread the
thought of yet another "failed conference" after the 2005 event, even though
that particular conference's failure to produce a final statement agreeable to
all, in light of the consensual mode of decision-making at the conference, was
not necessarily an "equal failure". In fact, in 2005, Iran, Egypt and a number
of other NAM nations discretely relished as a "small victory" the lack of a
tangible document averse to their own interests.
What matters more than the final outcome, however, is the review conference
currently underway (which started on May 3 and ends May 28) in which the tide
will likely change direction depending on savvy diplomacy from key participants
and the coalitions they muster.
Despite Ahmadinejad's growing Third World popularity, it is still not
far-fetched to think that Western governments will somehow manage to turn the
tide, recuperate their losses and deliver a stunning blow to Iran. Much depends
on Iran's ability to sustain the present momentum for a NAM-based united front
at the conference, so that the twin agenda of unfettered access to peaceful
nuclear technology and disarmament continues to enjoy full attention.
"This is a pitched battle and if Mr Ahmadinejad emerges successful at the end
of the conference, then this will increase the base of his support among the
population," says a Tehran political analyst, adding that by the same token the
lack of progress and the continuation of business as usual would also adversely
There is, in other words, an element of risk and even a gamble involved in the
two scenarios and before long we will know which has the upper hand. Meanwhile,
it is abundantly clear that Ahmadinejad has scored a major victory at home, by
appearing bold, innovative and with sufficient diplomatic prowess to take on
Uncle Sam on its own turf.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.