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The Last Hurrah: Ahmadinejad at the UN Assembly

by by Barry Elkinton

Last week, iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York to attend the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. With his second and final term as president set to expire next June, Ahmadinejad’s speech on Wednesday marked the last of his eight controversial appearances before the UN. Given the recent anti-American protests in the Middle East, the ongoing conflict within Syria, and simmering tensions between Israel and Iran, many world leaders were hoping that Ahmadinejad would resist the temptation to go out with a bang. On Sunday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon met with Ahmadinejad to express this general sentiment. “The Secretary-General drew attention to the potentially harmful consequences of inflammatory rhetoric, counter-rhetoric, and threats from various countries in the Middle East,” Ban’s office said in a statement.

To almost everyone’s surprise, Ahmadinejad mostly followed Ban’s advice, giving a relatively subdued speech on Wednesday. Other than his brief comment that the world’s current problems are attributable to “the self-proclaimed centers of power who have entrusted themselves to the devil,” Ahmadinejad largely avoided the controversial statements that have made his past UN appearances so infamous. “Ahmadinejad gave a long, rambling speech,” said one anonymous European diplomat to The New York Times. “Previously we’ve walked out because of his anti-Semitism, threats against Israel, and 9/11 conspiracies. This year his only crime was incoherence.”

But if Ahmadinejad’s speech this week was surprisingly tame, few are likely to forget his previous eight speeches before the General Assembly, when Ahmadinejad dramatically polemicized the United States, Israel and other Western powers. For Ahmadinejad, the UN speeches have served an important role in promoting his controversial foreign policy and personal character. While Ahmadinejad makes controversial statements almost as a matter of habit, his annual address at the UN is the only time when he gets a chance to stand behind a podium and address the world at large, or at least symbolically. For Ahmadinejad, the stakes are raised even higher by the UN’s New York location—behind enemy lines, so to speak—where he otherwise could not travel given the diplomatic standoff between the United States and Iran. Therefore, even if the General Assembly’s power is limited, the symbolism of the platform remains powerful.

This atmosphere of ritual without consequence fosters an environment where Ahmadinejad traditionally has taken a no-holds-barred approach in criticizing his enemies. Most controversial have been Ahmadinejad’s suggestions of a conspiracy behind the Holocaust and the September 11 attacks. In 2010, speaking about September 11, Ahmadinejad declared, “some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order also to save the Zionist regime.” Moreover, Ahmadinejad confidently stated, “the majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view.”

Ahmadinejad has also had plenty to say about human rights, an issue that has consistently dogged the Iranian nation. “The precious existence of women as the manifestation of divine beauty and as the peak of kindness, affection, and purity has been the target of heavy exploitation in recent decades by the holders of power and the owners of media and wealth,” said Ahmadinejad in 2007. Ergo, he suggested, strict female dress code were vital to preserving the dignity of women.

But if most people see the UN primarily as a site for symbolic theater, Ahmadinejad seems to regard the Assembly in more celestial terms. In 2005, after his speech, he said he felt a divine presence enter the room, causing the audience of diplomats to sit in unblinking rapture. “When I say they didn’t bat an eyelid, I’m not exaggerating because I was looking at them,” said Ahmadinejad in a video translated by PBS. “It seemed as if a hand was holding them there and had opened their eyes to receive the message from the Islamic republic.” This year, Ahmadinejad has made no mention of any supernal happenings during his speech; if there were any, they were certainly more ethereal.