Ahmadinejad’s Words Aren’t Taken Seriously at the U.N. But Are Obama’s?

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during the 1st International Islamic Awakening Conference in Tehran September 18, 2011. (Photo: Raheb Homavandi / Reuters)

NBC may have been seduced into doing a credulous exclusive “Day in the Life of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” special — as if the embattled Iranian president was sufficiently relevant to world events as to warrant interest in his workout routine — but no decision-makers will set much store by what he says when he turns up for his annual wretched-of-the-earth burlesque performance at the U.N. General Assembly.

That’s because Ahmadinejad has long-since become the lamest of ducks after taking on Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and the conservative clerical elite in a game of political Mortal Kombat — and getting owned by the Mullahs.  Many of his closest allies have been arrested, and his control over government and ability to influence decision-making has been demonstrably curbed. He has even been shunned by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which helped secure his disputed reelection. When Ahmadinejad tried to inflate his significance in the Western media mind on the eve of his departure by offering to release two American hikers jailed for espionage, his rivals in the judiciary made sure the world understood that Ahmadinejad doesn’t make the decisions that count by slapping down his offer. 

(SEE: Photos of Tehran’s brutal 2009 crackdown on the opposition.)

Ahmadinejad’s wings have been clipped to the point that his words, whether provocations and threats or conciliations, can’t be taken as any indication of Iran’s official stance. (There was speculation that Khamenei might even stop him traveling to New York for this week’s events.) The position of the presidency has limited power in the Iranian power structure, and Ahmadinejad lost his battle to change that reality. Instead, he has been reduced to a  role familiar to his reformist predecessor, Mohammed Khatami. A loose cannon he may be, but he’s firing blanks. Try as he may, this week, to reclaim global attention with the usual provocations, the U.N.’s concerns are focused elsewhere. Never mind the fact that his regional role in challenging Israel has been usurped by Turkey; the Iranian President could even find himself upstaged by his mild-mannered and accommodating namesake and counterpart, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But just as the international body is unlikely to set much store by the words of President Ahmadinejad, President Barack Obama may find himself in a not entirely dissimilar situation when it comes to the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition. The experience of the past 30 months has given many observers pause before taking to the bank Obama’s pronouncements on matters Middle Eastern. That’s because the President’s words haven’t always translated into  reality, particularly when faced with Israeli defiance backed by  bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Obama came into office determined to relaunch a peace process that had been effectively stalled (beyond occasional Israeli-Palestinian photo opportunities and non-committal chats) since President George W. Bush and Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon assumed office within weeks of one another early in 2001. He began by seeking a substantive demonstration of good faith by Israel, in the form of a settlement freeze: The U.S. government had never accepted Israeli settlement construction on land conquered in 1967 — a practice branded illegal by the U.N. Security Council. Halting the growth of the permanent Israeli presence on occupied territory that the international consensus held would belong to a future Palestinian state was the key demand from the Palestinian and Arab side for resuming talks.

In his outreach to the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo in June of 2009, Obama was blunt:

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.  (Applause.)  This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace.  It is time for these settlements to stop.  (Applause.)

“And Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society.  Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.”

The Gaza blockade remains in force, of course it was partially eased last summer after it was challenged by a Turkish-backed activist flotilla that prompted the Israeli commando raid that left ten of the activists dead — a matter that eventually triggered the collapse of Israeli-Turkish diplomatic relations.  And according to a World Bank report released last week, the West Bank economy remains fundamentally dependent on donor aid, because the growth of its private sector choked by the occupation’s restrictions.

On Obama’s demand for a complete settlement freeze, Netanyahu responded by announcing a time-limited partial moratorium, and the Administration eventually managed to coax the Palestinians back to the table for three negotiating sessions shortly before last year’s U.N. General Assembly session. That allowed Obama, in his U.N. address, to hail his Administration’s achievement in getting Abbas and Netanyahu around a table:

 “We know that there will be tests along the way and that one test is fast approaching.  Israel’s settlement moratorium has made a difference on the ground and improved the atmosphere for talks.  And our position on this issue is well known.  We believe that the moratorium should be extended.  We also believe that talks should press on until completed.  Now is the time for the parties to help each other overcome this obstacle.  Now is the time to build the trust — and provide the time — for substantial progress to be made.  Now is the time for this opportunity to be seized, so that it does not slip away…  If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

But Israel did not extend its partial moratorium, and the Palestinians walked away from the table. By the end of last year, the Obama Administration was forced to concede defeat on settlements, and to try and move on as if it hadn’t made that demand in the first place. (Another key applause line in the 2009 Cairo speech went the same way: The one in which President Obama announced that he had “ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.”)

Unfortunately for the President, however, the Palestinians were having none of it; they took Israel’s response on settlements — and the ease with which it had simply walked the U.S. back on the issue — as a signal that further talks with Netanyahu would produce no progress, and would simply provide political cover for the status quo.

For all the promise of Obama’s early speeches, Palestinians — as well as the citizenry of the Arab world and most of the rest of the developing world and even Europe — view him as ultimately toeing a line laid down by Israel and its partisans on Capitol Hill. Needless to say, the Administration’s insistence that it’s opposition to the Palestinian statehood bid is based on preserving some  hypothetical peace process is not taken very seriously among Palestinians, or in the wider Arab world. Indeed, a Zogby poll published in July found that Obama’s approval rating across the Arab world has plummeted to around 10%, and that opinions of the U.S. are actually lower than they were in the final year of the Bush Administration. And remember, the same polling organization found his Arab approval rating about 50% in the wake of the Cairo speech. The reason for the fall is that the Arab world is paying less heed to Obama’s words than  to his actions.

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