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Barbara Slavin, Senior Diplomatic Reporter, USA Today

Barbara Slavin reflected on the character and behavior of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, based on her knowledge of Iran and a recent two-week visit to Iran in February 2006 that included an interview with the president himself.

Slavin began by noting Ahmedinejad's own surmising that he will not serve out his full term and that he will be a martyr to his cause. He understands that there are forces within Iran working against him, including those in conservative circles, and that even many who voted for him may now be regretting that decision. Part of the growing discontent with Ahmedinejad's rule, according to Slavin, is likely attributable to his failure to deliver on his campaign promises of improved economic conditions.

Politically, Slavin argued, Ahmedinejad is not a key figure in creating Iranian foreign policy, although his outrageous statements on foreign affairs may be part of an effort to portray himself as such. Slavin pointed to Supreme Leader Khamenei, head of the National Security Council Ali Larijani, former President Rafsanjani, and other Iranian political players as having much larger foreign policymaking roles than Ahmedinejad. Thus, in the realm of foreign policy, President Ahmedinejad is hemmed in by his political rivals.

Slavin expanded on Ahmedinejad's character, noting that he has been serious and earnest since childhood. In speaking with Ahmedinejad's childhood friends and family, Slavin learned that Ahmedinejad as a child was dedicated to his schoolwork and to religious service, and that he was an overachiever, perhaps exhibiting the attention-seeking behavior of a "classic middle child" as the fourth of seven children. Unlike many of his colleagues, Ahmedinejad never spent time abroad, completing all of his studies in Tehran, and in the years before the 1979 revolution, Ahmedinejad turned to the right, at a time when many of his friends were turning to the left.

During her interview with President Ahmedinejad, Slavin noted, the president spoke in a dogmatic manner, in contrast to other Iranian officials who made overtures about openness with the U.S. in Slavin's presence. Rather, Ahmedinejad spoke in nearly pure propagandistic terms, and never really specified what he would like to see from the U.S. government. Slavin observed, too, that Ahmedinejad was extremely reluctant to comment upon his visit to the United Nations in New York in September of 2005.

Overall, Slavin characterized Ahmedinejad as being a third world revolutionary in the style of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. As such, Slavin argued, President Ahmedinejad feels strongly connected to the Palestinians, whom he sees as a people who have suffered at the hands of Europeans. His solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a referendum in which Palestinians living abroad would have the right to vote, which would lead to Israel's defeat. Ahmedinejad does have theoretical solutions to problems, Slavin commented, but these solutions are extremely detached from reality and pragmatism. Ahmedinejad's frame of reference is so narrow that he doesn't want to accept the recommendations of others, Slavin argues, and his election to the presidency has been a great ego trip for Ahmedinejad. Moreover, President Ahmedinejad carries a grudge against reformers, says Slavin. Ahmedinejad served as governor of Ardabil from 1993 to 1997, when Mohammad Khatami was elected president, and the new Interior Minister removed Ahmedinejad.

Slavin noted that Ahmedinejad represents a small constituency within the revolutionaries, but even members of this group have begun to criticize him. Politicians across Iran's political spectrum see Ahmedinejad as naïve and untrained, and in general he has not been given much leeway in terms of delivering on his campaign promises. Among reformers, the comments have been quite scathing, according to Slavin. Part of the criticism derives from the fact that while oil prices have been high, unemployment and inflation also remain high, which has been bad for the economy and for the Iranian people.

In regard to Iran's nuclear policy, Slavin stated that President Ahmedinejad is not a decision-maker. Rather, Ahmedinejad has been a useful front man for the more aggressive nuclear strategy that was adopted by decision-makers in August 2005. If this strategy fails, Slavin observed, Ahmedinejad may be quickly marginalized and constrained to the domestic arena, for which he has a mandate. Furthermore, Slavin noted that Iran has already felt the negative repercussions of its internationally-condemned nuclear program, in the form of capital flight out of Iran and into Dubai, and brain drain out of the country.

Drafted by Mariam Al-Shamma