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Iranians puzzle why the US focuses on their President

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has arrived in New York and whilst denied a visit to Ground Zero will address a meeting at Columbia University. A fire-storm has erupted. Whatever the outcome and fall-out of that speech at the University, as the NY Times reports from Teheran, the Iranians puzzle why the US focuses so much on their President:

"....it is because of his provocative remarks, like denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, that the United States and Europe have never known quite how to handle him. In demonizing Mr. Ahmadinejad, the West has served him well, elevating his status at home and in the region at a time when he is increasingly isolated politically because of his go-it-alone style and ineffective economic policies, according to Iranian politicians, officials and political experts.

Political analysts here say they are surprised at the degree to which the West focuses on their president, saying that it reflects a general misunderstanding of their system.

Unlike in the United States, in Iran the president is not the head of state nor the commander in chief. That status is held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, whose role combines civil and religious authority. At the moment, this president’s power comes from two sources, they say: the unqualified support of the supreme leader, and the international condemnation he manages to generate when he speaks up.

“The United States pays too much attention to Ahmadinejad,” said an Iranian political scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “He is not that consequential.”

That is not to say that Mr. Ahmadinejad is insignificant. He controls the mechanics of civil government, much the way a prime minister does in a state like Egypt, where the real power rests with the president. He manages the budget and has put like-minded people in positions around the country, from provincial governors to prosecutors. His base of support is the Basiji militia and elements of the Revolutionary Guards.

But Mr. Ahmadinejad has not shown the same political acumen at home as he has in riling the West. Two of his ministers have quit, criticizing his stewardship of the state. The head of the central bank resigned. The chief judge criticized him for his management of the government. His promise to root out corruption and redistribute oil wealth has run up against entrenched interests."

Meanwhile, many in the West might do well to take heed of what the LA Times reports out of the Middle East in how they view the Iranian President there:

"Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a flinty populist in a zip-up jacket whose scathing rhetoric and defiance of Washington are often caricatured in the Western media, has transcended national and religious divides to become a folk hero across the Middle East.

The diminutive, at times inscrutable, president is a wellspring of stinging sound-bites and swagger for Muslims who complain that their leaders are too beholden to or frightened of the Bush administration. Ahmadinejad, who arrived in New York Sunday ahead of a U.N. General Assembly meeting, is an easily marketable commodity:a streetwise politician with nuclear ambitions and an open microphone.

"I like him a lot," said Mahmoud Ali, a medical student in Cairo. "He's trying to protect himself and his nation from the dangers around him. He makes me feel proud. He's a symbol of Islam. He seems the only person capable of taking a stand against Israel and the West. Unfortunately, Egypt has gotten too comfortable with Washington."

Ahmadinejad's appeal is especially strong in Egypt, where he is compared to the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose bold, yet doomed vision of pan-Arabism in the 1950s was also aimed at stemming Western influence. In the minds of many Egyptians, Iran's quest to expand its nuclear program despite United Nations sanctions is similar to Nasser's confrontation with the British and French over nationalizing the Suez Canal.

What's striking in Ahmadinejad's case, however, is that the leader of a non-Arab Shiite nation has ingratiated himself with the Middle East's predominantly Sunni Arab population."

You can't ignore the man but perhaps the West needs to understand where he fits in in the scheme of things in Iran. The worry is that the Americans and Israelis might unleash something by attacking Iran, with wider ramifications, which is too horrible to contemplate.

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