Exit Ahmadinejad: Iranian President Leaves World Stage with a Whimper

In what was likely his last appearance before the U.N. General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bowed out with a whimper

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Mike Segar / Reuters

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sits with his delegation before addressing the General Assembly on Sept. 26, 2012, at U.N. headquarters in New York City

Wednesday’s two attention-grabbing speeches at the U.N. General Assembly — one by Egypt’s Mohamed Morsy and the other by Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — were those of two Presidents whose political stars are moving in opposite directions. Morsy, who this year became the Arab world’s first democratically elected Islamist head of state, debuted his statesman credentials, speaking forcefully of the plight of Palestinians, offering a road map for peace in Syria and implicitly chastising both Iran and Israel in their posturing over nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, in his eighth and likely last appearance before the General Assembly, spoke vacuously about not all that much, huffing and puffing about a “new world order” with little of the brio that in the past compelled diplomats to stand up and walk out midspeech.

That’s because Ahmadinejad is something of a lame duck. The reigning pantomime villain of U.N. week sees his presidential term end next year and is not eligible for a third one. He is also clearly at odds with the theocratic powers that be in the Islamic Republic, who, observers say, have grown tired of the populist politician’s “showboating” style and dispatched him this year to New York City with a very short diplomatic leash. While striking a defiant pose in the face of international sanctions, Ahmadinejad has been locked for months in domestic political skirmishes. A key ally of his was charged with “sorcery” last year; another prominent figure in Ahmadinejad’s camp, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, head of Iran’s IRNA state news agency, was arrested Wednesday and jailed for publishing material deemed offensive to religious moral codes.

At a press conference the same day at his hotel in midtown Manhattan, a block away from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Ahmadinejad said he had yet to “digest” the news of Javanfekr’s arrest. Speaking beneath a painted portrait of the republic’s two Supreme Leaders — the late Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatullah Ali Khamenei — Ahmadinejad seemed the same small man with a thin smile who the U.N. press corps dutifully followed for nearly a decade. But this time, it was as if he too were getting tired of his own act.

Far from spouting the anti-Zionist vitriol his opponents in the West despise him for, Ahmadinejad never once even mentioned the word Israel. Instead, he preached an airy, utopian egalitarianism, where “social relationships are guided by respect, kindness and love” in a world where “no one is better than, higher than anyone else.” The subtext, of course, was Iran’s long-standing disapproval of U.S. dominance in international affairs, particularly the Middle East, but Ahmadinejad’s words carried no edge. “The world over, people are kind and loving. We are made of the same fabric,” he said. An American journalist sitting close to this TIME reporter muttered whether this was indeed the Iranian President speaking or, instead, new-age guru Deepak Chopra, who was a guest of the nearby Clinton Global Initiative.

When compelled to address specifics, Ahmadinejad largely skirted around tough questions — and minimized throughout his own role and legacy. Asked about how he viewed the past eight years of turbulence with Washington, Ahmadinejad made himself a pebble in the stream— “for 33 years we have ceased to have relations [with the U.S.]” — and criticized earlier American administrations for their role in supporting Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran in the 1980s. On Syria, Ahmadinejad decried the “intervention and meddling of outside forces” in the bloody, internecine conflict — pointing, it seemed, to the aid that Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar are giving Syria’s rebels — but dismissed abruptly evidence that Iran, too, is “meddling” by supporting the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad. When a colleague confronted Ahmadinejad on the presence of hundreds of political prisoners in his country, he ignored the comment, hoping instead for “a day when no one is prisoner at all” before then pouring scorn on the American justice system for incarcerating over 3 million of its own people.

The Iranian President seemed most comfortable in this realm of vagaries and grand historical gestures. The Syrians, it had to be remembered, are “an ancient people.” What do Egypt and Iran’s complex current relations matter when they are the “cradles of two great civilizations”? Moreover, Ahmadinejad clung to the messianic rhetoric that animates political discourse in the Islamic Republic: humanity, he says, strives for “higher plateaus” and a “beautiful event.” Mysticism and a sense of divine calling lined his mumblings: “The full extent of human dignity is not even known,” said Ahmadinejad. More realistically, what is not known is his own political future as he heads back to the battles and politicking that await in Tehran.