Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s airing of a 9-11 conspiracy theory during his speech to the UN General Assembly last week produced a walk out by several delegations (including New Zealand’s) and a predictable chorus of outrage by conservative Western media. Not being a fan of 9-11 conspiracy theories myself, I simply note that this is is just the latest in a series of provocative UN speeches by Ahmadinejad, including his contention three years ago that there are no gays in Iran (insert Tui ad here).
What may not be apparent to the peanut gallery is the real reasons for the crazy talk. Let me therefore explain them.
As I have written before here and elsewhere, authoritarian regimes are seldom monolithic but instead are usually divided into factions of one kind or another depending on the specifics of the regime. There are hard-liners and soft-liners, idealists versus pragmatists, old guard versus new guard, religious versus secularist, military versus civilian, rural versus urban–these and other cleavages may overlap in any variety of ways (and can include inter-service divisions in military-dominated regimes). Ahmadinejad is associated with one hard line faction within the electoral authoritarian theocratic regime in Iran. This faction has been seriously undermined by the disputed December 2009 election results and subsequent unrest, something that comes at a time when Tehran is trying to impose its stamp as a major regional power by, among other things, pursuing an independent nuclear capability that has the potential if not intent of achieving nuclear deterrent status. That is the domestic context in which the UN speech was given.
The speech was televised live in Iran. It was designed to bolster Ahmadinejad’s hard-line credentials and image as a strong leader at home, thereby shoring up his support within the Revolutionary Guard affiliated hard-line elements that are vying for regime control with more moderate, secularist factions. The speech was, in other words, more for domestic consumption than international indigestion.
But it was also designed to raise Ahmadinejad’s stature within the Muslim world, and by extension that of Iran in its battle with pro-Western Sunni regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. The theory that 9-11 was an inside job perpetrated by the US so that it could then embark on a military project of world domination and defense of the”Zionist entity” has a fair bit of credence amongst (mostly uneducated) Muslims. Although crazy on the face of it, supposedly unexplained questions about the attacks themselves, the possibility of an ex post facto US whitewash or cover-up of the events leading up to and immediately following the attacks, and the subsequent US declaration of a “war on terror” leading to the invasion and occupation of two Muslim-dominant states (as well as the deployment of US military forces to dozens of others), lends itself easily to conspiracy theorisation, if not out of genuine skepticism than as a tool by which to manipulate subject populations already hostile to the US and Israel. By voicing one version of the “9-11 was an inside job” theory (as one of three possible explanations for the attacks mentioned by Ahmadinejad in his speech), the Iranian president dared to go where other Muslim leaders fail to tread. That raises his profile, and that of Iran, as the champion of Islamic interests at a time when other Muslim states are seen as complicit with or subjugated to US-led Western interests.
There is an irony in all of this. In a very real sense, Ahmadinejad’s speech and the reaffirmation of his position within the Iranian regime can be seen as a good thing when it comes to negotiations about its nuclear ambitions. It is axiomatic in diplomatic negotiations that agents have a strong mandate from their constituents. If the agents do not then their bargaining position can be undermined during or after the negotiations, making the entire process futile. By making his speech Ahmadinejad bolsters his position as a negotiating agent in the measure that support for him unifies and consolidates into diplomatic talking points. Put another way, were his position within the regime to remain weak or under challenge, his position as a negotiator would be undermined as well and anything that he agreed to could be undone by rivals seeking to strengthen their own internal hand. In other words, his word would mean nothing at the negotiating table.
But if his speech serves to unify support for him, then his ability to negotiate an agreement on the nuclear programme in which trade-offs between renunciation of weapons ambitions are exchanged for removal of sanctions and provision of aid, etc. will be enhanced. This is especially so because he is a hardliner with a reputation, reaffirmed by the speech, of defying the Great Satan, the UK and other Western powers while denouncing the Zionists and courting Chinese, Pakistani, North Korean and Venezuelan ties. Just like US Republican administrations (Nixon and Reagan, respectively) could lead the opening to China and the thawing of relations (glasnost) with the Soviet Union because of their hard-line credentials and domestic positions of political strength, so too it is that Ahmadinejad’s faction, not the soft-line or moderates in the Iranian regime, has the best credentials for negotiating the terms of any durable agreement on its nuclear programme. In the measure that his speech reaffirms his hard-line credentials and strengthens his position within the regime, the more possible it is for him to be a reliable negotiating agent vis a vis the West, which means that the prospects of a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse are actually improved if his speech has the desired effect on his intended main audience.
Which is to say, Ahmadinejad may seem crazy, but he is crazy like a fox.