Seven years ago, the then-newly elected Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made his maiden voyage to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), and catapulted himself into a rare pantheon of world leaders who are simultaneously reviled and ridiculed. His very presence at the august international forum was itself a source of tremendous controversy. The Bush Administration had seriously considered denying the Iranian leader a visa, an extraordinary breach of diplomatic protocol, after allegations of Ahmadinejad’s involvement in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the 15-month hostage crisis that followed. Even more ominously, Tehran had just reopened its uranium conversion plant, the first step in its breach of an agreement with European powers to suspend worrisome nuclear activities and the revival of its ongoing standoff with the international community.
In the end, Ahmadinejad’s 2005 UNGA visit received a reluctant green light, and his rambling discourse and defiant defense of Iran’s right to the full nuclear fuel cycle provided an unexpected public relations victory for Washington, as well as for Ahmadinejad’s adversaries at home. The speech can be credited with expediting the Bush administration’s effort to prompt action by the U.N. Security Council against Iran’s nuclear program, and with drawing new derision within Iran over Ahmadinejad’s claims of divine intervention during the speech itself. As a result, Ahmadinejad was welcomed back to New York each subsequent September with a certain degree of perverse anticipation over his proclivity for galvanizing opposition to Iran’s most objectionable activities.
As he begins his final year in office, Ahmadinejad made his farewell visit to UNGA this week. His swan song in New York on Wednesday contained little of the fodder for outrage that his previous visits have so generously provided, such as his 2007 request to lay a wreath at the site of the World Trade Center or his 2010 conspiracy theories about official American involvement in the 9/11 attacks. His final address was replete with disjointed philosophical musings over the failings of the international system and the inequities of capitalism, but it contained little of the provocation that has brought the Iranian president such renown. Much has changed for both Ahmadinejad and the country he represents over the course of his eight visits to New York, almost all of it for the worse, and it would be tempting to suggest that the restraint exhibited in his speech this year reflects a recognition of his own reduced circumstances, or those of his country.
After all, Ahmadinejad is no longer riding high at home. For his first five years as president, his tendency to assert his influence well beyond the bounds of the relatively limited authority accorded to his office enabled Ahmadinejad to play an outsized role at home as well as in the international arena. His audacity, egotism and the apparent endorsement of Iran’s ultimate authority, its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, initially enabled this president to transcend the traps of the Islamic Republic’s bifurcated power structure and its persistent factional warfare. Predictably, however, Ahmadinejad eventually overstepped, and like each of his predecessors his personal ambitions proved no match for a system constructed to ensure its own preservation and the unchallenged prerogative of the supreme leader. For the past 18 months, Ahmadinejad has been increasingly marginalized within the Islamic Republic, reduced to playing a convenient foil for intra-elite skirmishing while Khamenei toys with the notion of simply eliminating the presidency altogether.
Iran’s own fortunes seem similarly diminished. International sanctions have eviscerated Iran’s ability to attract international investment and have cut its oil exports to less than half their 2005 volumes. And despite Tehran’s success in simply surviving the onslaught, through a combination of evasion, mitigation and insulation tactics, the sanctions are having a devastating impact on the domestic economy. The currency has collapsed, the price of basic commodities has escalated, and Iran’s vital middle class has become gripped with an intensifying sense of hardship and anxiety. Although Tehran has secured new regional openings as a result of the Arab spring and has sought to maintain the pretense of international engagement through summit puffery, the Islamic Republic has few friends around the world today. The revolution’s tentative international opening during the 1990s, which saw its reformist president feted throughout Europe, has since reverted to reliance on fraternity of pariahs, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Byelorusse. High oil prices will likely sustain the state, but Iran’s status today has been dramatically eroded and the horizons of a great nation are withering.
Still, it would be unwise to underestimate either the mercurial Ahmadinejad or the Iranian capacity for revival and reinvention. The history of the Islamic Republic has seldom followed a predictable narrative, and the expectations of even knowledgeable outside observers have typically proven incorrect. Seven years ago, the emergence of the previously unknown Ahmadinejad revealed the surprising staying power of Iran’s revolutionary fervor, as well as the residual mistrust and animosity toward the international community among a generation whose foremost frame of reference was Iran’s long, brutal and mostly solitary struggle with Iraq. Today, Ahmadinejad himself has receded in relevance, but as the world contemplates the prospect of an even fiercer conflict with Iran over its nuclear program, we should remember that the political tendencies that he represents remain as powerful as ever.