By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
TEHRAN -- On the afternoon of Jan. 4, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reached for the phone and got Latin America on the line. In quick succession, he chatted with President Fidel Castro of Cuba, rang up President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and, sensing yet another kindred spirit, reached out to Evo Morales, the young firebrand who had just been elected president of Bolivia.
Person-to-person and peer-to-peer, the transatlantic calls described on Ahmadinejad's presidential Web site linked self-styled populists who glory in defying the West. But for Iran, the exchanges carried significance reaching well beyond Ahmadinejad and the controversy enveloping him personally after questioning the Holocaust and saying Israel should be "wiped off the map."
In its bid to proceed with a nuclear program opposed by Washington and Western Europe, Iran's leadership appears settled on a revived policy of confrontation with "global arrogance," as the country's rulers have referred to the foreign policy of United States for almost three decades. But the contest is now being framed as a David-vs.-Goliath battle, and Iran is seeking to attract relatively poor, disempowered nonaligned nations to its side, not simply the Muslim world it once saw itself as leading, Iranian officials and analysts say.
"With our knowledge of the present world, we can use the power of weakness. The weak people also have power," said Emad Afrough, an Iranian lawmaker. "We can have more political bargaining power, and instead of just us confronting the dominant powers, the world can confront them."
The strategy came into sharper focus last week with the announcement that the speaker of Iran's parliament would travel to Cuba and Venezuela next month. The itinerary carried particular weight because, in the indirect way of politics here, it implied the endorsement of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the unelected cleric who holds ultimate power in Iran.
Khamenei is the parliamentary leader's father- in-law and holds the formal title of supreme leader of the revolution. He has final say over Iran's nuclear strategy and approved -- grudgingly, diplomats say -- the bargain with Europe that froze Iran's nuclear program in 2003 when its existence came to light after 18 years of secrecy. And he authorized the reactivation of the same program last month, when Iran took the seals off equipment at its main uranium enrichment plant, which led the United States and other foreign powers to decide this week to haul Iran before the U.N. Security Council.
Khamenei prefers to remain in the background, however, leaving nuclear diplomacy to the mild-mannered loyalist he named head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani.
"Larijani is very much in charge of major defense and foreign policy questions," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University. "He is the one who would represent the consensus of various factions more than Ahmadinejad."
Yet Ahmadinejad has come to embody Iran's new defiance, attracting international attention -- and, from the West, opprobrium -- out of proportion to the powers of the office he assumed in August. Under the theocratic constitution written after the popular revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, the powers of the executive were so tightly limited that Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, argued that the typical Iranian citizen had more power than the president.
What the president does have is a bully pulpit. Khatami used his eight years in office to nudge Iran out of isolation, encouraging a "dialogue between civilizations" aimed at rapprochement with Europe and even Washington, which severed diplomatic relations in 1980.
But the approach was viewed as largely futile, especially after President Bush lumped Iran with North Korea and Iraq in an "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address. The speech strengthened Iranian hard-liners who argued that the country must define itself in opposition to the United States.
"Especially after Iran was branded in the axis of evil, these guys turned to the leader and said, 'What has Khatami gotten us?' " said an Iranian political analyst who asked not to be named because his employer had not authorized public comment.
But the new policy of confrontation differs from the bare-knuckled militancy of the early 1980s, a period Ahmadinejad invoked with nostalgia during his June election campaign. In the years following the 1979 Islamic revolution, the newly formed theocracy married ideology with religion to cast Iran as leader of the Muslim world. Ruling clerics vowed to export the revolution and fashion a civilization independent of Western "toxins."
Ahmadinejad's attention-getting screeds against Israel harked to that heritage. But analysts and diplomats said the outreach to Latin America smacked of realpolitik, dovetailing neatly with Iran's nuclear diplomacy.
It also involves reviving another moribund concept: the Non-Aligned Movement, as many Third World nations dubbed themselves during the Cold War to signal their independence from the Western and Communist blocs. To them, Iran argues that as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it is guaranteed the right to an atomic program to produce electricity. The world's most powerful counties are exercising a double standard by threatening sanctions if Iran proceeds with plans to do just that, say Iranian officials, who deny allegations that the country wants nuclear weapons.
The argument has found traction among some developing countries that account for 17 of the 35 seats on the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog. India, with its 1 billion people a natural nonaligned leader, is considered pivotal in any vote. Cuba and Venezuela sit on the board as well, along with South Africa, a respected nonaligned spokesman.
"Iran has managed to do two important things. First, it revived the nonaligned movement as a powerful, swayable group," said a European diplomat who asked not to be quoted by name. Second, Britain, France, China, Russia and the United States -- the five permanent members of the Security Council -- reacted by starting to coordinate their stance toward Iran.
"Both are probably bad things, because the effect has been to deeply politicize the IAEA," the diplomat said.
Ahmadinejad appears to relish his role in the effort. "He wants to fight the powerful, whether they be domestic or international," said Hadian-Jazy, who has stayed in touch with Ahmadinejad since they were in grade school together.
Elected in June on a populist platform that promised poor Iranians a share of the country's oil wealth, Ahmadinejad speaks often of what he calls painful truths. He often speaks expansively of the human appetite for "spirituality" and "justice" and refers to himself as "just a teacher."
"His speeches are great, fantastic, kind of '60s Third World stuff," said a European diplomat based in Tehran. "It's funny this stuff is going on in South America at the same time."
Some in Iran's establishment question whether rhetoric is most effective. "We can't achieve our demands only with shouting," said Afrough, the lawmaker. "The Western world, having these very complex facilities, they still use the media. We need to use that more, because that's the only tool we have."
But others point out that Iran is working other levers as well. Last week the country's central bank said Iran was pulling its cash out of European banks. A day later the same office denied that any transfers had occurred. The resulting confusion was intentional, said Hamidreza Taraqqi, a senior official of the Islamic Coalition, an Iranian religious party.
"It depends on the decision of Europe," he said with a smile. "If they defend our rights on the nuclear issue, the money will stay. If they follow America, the money will go out."
Staff writer Dafna Linzer in Vienna contributed to this report.