Monday, September 19, 2005

Iran: Contra ... or Pro?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is going to take some getting used to. His speech last week at the United Nations and the handful of interviews he gave, including one to Newsweek's Lally Weymouth, did little to ease American and European suspicions that he's just a front for hardline Iranian mullahs hell-bent on building atomic weapons and sowing terror throughout the Middle East. To be sure, Ahmadinejad's language sounds reasonable. But his body-language -- his whole personal style -- is a little too reminiscent of the hostage takers who were America's nightmare a quarter-century ago. Probably he wasn't part of the embassy takeover team. But he looks and talks like he wishes he was.
What Westerners think about Ahmadinejad, however, really isn't as important as what Iranians think. And the computer-literate class, at least, doesn't like him. When Iranian blogger Hossein "Hoder" Derakshan conducted an online poll asking his readers if they accepted the legitimacy of the disappointing reformist President Khatami (1997-2005) and/or the legitimacy of this new President Ahmadinejad, 14 per cent said they accepted the legitimacy of both; 64 per cent said they accepted Khatami's legitimacy, but not Ahmadinejad's; only 3 per cent said they accepted Ahmadinejad alone; and 19 per cent said neither were legitimate. Online polls of this kind are notoriously unreliable indicators of wider public opinion. But, still, with 2,355 respondents, it's an interesting sample.
Before the Bush administration gets too excited about the Iranian people denying Ahmadinejad's legitimacy, however, it might want to listen to what Hoder has to say about the results of his own poll. In his opinion, foreigners "are not in a position to judge" the legitimacy of elected officials in somebody else's country. Secondly, he says, "an isolated Iran would be much more harmful than one with which the world and the U.S. is engaged." Hoder argues that since Ahmadinejad's mentor, Ayatollah Khamenei, now controls almost all sources of power in Iran, at least there is a clear interlocutor. The United States should take advantage of that fact, Hoder says. "The U.S. will never have a better chance to normalise relations."

For more on Iranian bloggers, see "Writing Lolita in Tehran," or go directly to Hoder's English-language blog.
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