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Iran chief may be pulling nation back to isolation

An Iranian woman walks past a satirized drawing of the Statue of Liberty painted on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
An Iranian woman walks past a satirized drawing of the Statue of Liberty painted on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
Vahid Salemi, Associated Press

ISTANBUL — Having ignited two diplomatic confrontations in as many months, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is raising concern that he intends to steer Iran back to the isolation of the early 1980s, a period of radical absolutes that he frequently invokes as an ideal.

Such a course would reverse more than a decade of gradual engagement with the West by Iran's theocratic government. In addition, diplomats and analysts say, it would greatly complicate efforts to ease concern about the country's nuclear program through negotiations.

The diplomatic firestorm sparked by Ahmadinejad's repeated statements last week that "Israel should be wiped off the map" further damaged a negotiating position that he had already undermined, according to analysts. Shortly after Ahmadinejad hinted in a strident Sept. 17 speech to the United Nations that the United States was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the International Atomic Energy Agency voted to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council.

"In Iran as everywhere else in the world, radicalism seeks isolation in diplomacy," said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and commentator in Tehran. Ahmadinejad "seems to be trying to push the country this way," Laylaz said. "He twice mentioned Israel should be wiped off the map — twice — and he knows that 20 days later we have to face the IAEA. It's not good for the country."

In the newly tense atmosphere, when Ahmadinejad's government announced Wednesday that it was replacing 40 ambassadors and diplomats, foreign journalists treated the development more as a sign of belligerence than as the routine prerogative of a new administration.

On the same day, Iran's Foreign Ministry, which last weekend issued assurances that the country had no intention of attacking Israel, recalled its ambassador to Rome after reports that Italian officials would join a public protest outside the Iranian Embassy.

Yet Iran also agreed to allow IAEA inspectors back into a high-security military site. A European diplomat said such quiet cooperation appears intended to keep alive the possibility of resuming negotiations suspended after Iran resumed preparations to enrich uranium, despite an agreement with three European powers. Such overtures, however, have been overwhelmed by Ahmadinejad's confrontational rhetoric, which unsettles nations that might otherwise be inclined to support Iran on the IAEA board. The board is made up of nations that have signed the nuclear Nonprofileration Treaty.

"He's made it far easier for those who want the hard line to push for it," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Ahmadinejad's rhetoric echoes the strident sloganeering that has long dominated the hard-line wing of Iranian politics from which he emerged in June, when he was elected to the office he actually assumed in August. It stands in stark contrast to the subtlety and pragmatism displayed by a wide spectrum of Iranian officials in the past 16 years, as the government moved increasingly toward engaging the rest of the world.

That modest push for engagement provided the foundation for negotiations when Iran's nuclear program came to light three years ago after being kept secret for 18 years. European powers offered to expand trade ties if Iran stopped trying to enrich uranium. In a rare gesture by the United States, which broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after the 444-day takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran between 1979 and 1981, the Bush administration in March withdrew the long-standing American objection to Iran joining the World Trade Organization.

But Iran's desire for a negotiated settlement has been called into question by Ahmadinejad's speeches.

"This affects everything they do," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University. "What are their chances with the WTO when the whole world's passing resolutions against them?" Sick was a White House national security aide when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the 1979 revolution that established the Islamic republic.

"Ahmadinejad now really represents a reversion back to the Khomeini days," Sick said. "And that's a stunning, shocking surprise."

Some analysts suggested that Ahmadinejad, who came to the presidency with no foreign policy experience, might simply be in over his head. Elected on a populist economic platform, the former Tehran mayor cast himself as an ordinary Iranian intent on reviving the ideals of the revolution.

"His image of the world is still very, very local," said Hadi Semati, a Tehran University political scientist who is a resident at Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Some critics cite evidence from across Iran that the new government is struggling to master the levers of power.

Four major ministries, including the oil ministry, remain without new leaders after the conservative parliament rejected Ahmadinejad's choices. Tehran's stock exchange has lost a third of its value since his election, which profoundly unsettled business circles. And Ahmadinejad's interior minister irritated consumers last month by hinting that Iran might ban goods imported from Britain and South Korea in retaliation for their IAEA votes.

"All over the country, people believe he does not have the ability to handle the problems," Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Tehran's Supreme National Defense University, said of Ahmadinejad.

On the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad's policymaking power is limited. As president, is only one of a dozen members of the Supreme National Security Council, which fashioned the negotiating positions that foreign diplomats have grudgingly praised as skilled.

"He's only one voice in the room," Sick said of Ahmadinejad, "and his voice would right now carry less than any other in that room."

But there are indications that his confrontational diplomacy is deliberate. In field of a half-dozen presidential candidates, only Ahmadinejad rejected rapprochement with the West. And when he arrived at the United Nations in September, he offered Secretary General Kofi Annan not the new ideas he had promised to help stave off confrontation over the nuclear issue, but a legalistic defense of Iran's right to nuclear technology.

Annan was stunned, according to notes taken by a member of Annan's staff and two other people in the private meeting. "It's time to act like a statesman," he told Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad was then asked, through a series of contacts between his staff and European officials, to refrain from making the same argument in a speech he was to deliver several days later. Instead, he included three references to Iran's intentions to enrich uranium.

"We gave him 24 hours to rewrite that speech, and instead of choosing softer language that could have saved the diplomatic process, he just toughened it up," said a senior European official.

On Friday, Annan canceled a planned trip to Tehran. "The secretary general and the Iranian government have mutually agreed that this is not an appropriate time for him to travel to Iran," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, according to news services. "In light of the ongoing controversy, it would have been difficult to advance the agenda that he had wanted to discuss with the Iranian leadership."

In Tehran, a Foreign Ministry source contended it was Iran, not Annan, who wanted the trip rescheduled "to a more appropriate time in the future," the official Iranian news agency reported.