Ahmadinejad's Smile

The good news is that despite the chaos in Iraq and the destruction in New Orleans, America has not retreated into its shell.

The news conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of the fascinating events that took place during the trip with the prime minister to the UN General Assembly. Only rarely does an Israeli journalist get a chance to see the enemy at an arm's length and listen to him (in simultaneous translation from Persian), without the mediation of intelligence officers and commentators on Arab/Muslim affairs.

Ahmadinejad is not a big man. He has a timid smile and tends to wave his hands. He enjoyed the attention and the meetings with world leaders, and tried to soften the harsh image of his regime. The diplomat who ran the news conference said that the new president, aged 49, has a Ph.D. in Transportation from Tehran's University of Science and Technology. As a transportation expert and former mayor of a major city, he apologized to New Yorkers for the traffic jams the summit meeting caused.

In his speech to the General Assembly he presented a consistent world view, based on objection to American dominance. He sees Iran as the true democracy in the Middle East, which is fighting the "nuclear apartheid" directed against it in the name of equality. In other circumstances, the anti-American European left could have grown fond of Ahmadinejad for his statements against the belligerence of the "few who rule the media." But he was not trying to make friends in the West at all, but to attack and to demonstrate that he could come all the way to New York to curse America and even poke fun at the hurricane disaster.

He totally rejects Israel's right to exist. He refused to answer Israelis' questions and presented his narrative of the conflict. The Jews came from afar, disinherited the Palestinians and banished them from their land. There will only be peace when all the refugees return and "a democratic Palestinian state" is established with al-Quds as its capital, in place of the "Zionist occupation regime."

Ahmadinejad's callousness reflects Iran's growing power as a result of the Iraq war, which wiped out its biggest enemy - Saddam Hussein. Soaring oil prices have boosted Iran's economy and the nearby U.S. army is embroiled in a war of attrition. In these circumstances, Iran is waging a diplomatic campaign to save its nuclear program, in the name of its "inalienable right" to produce enriched uranium.

Ahmadinejad came to the UN to examine the limits of his power versus America and its European partners. Ariel Sharon and Silvan Shalom were conducting a counter lobbying campaign. So was Mossad head Meir Dagan, coordinator of Israel's effort to thwart Iran's nuclear program, who left for secret talks in Washington.

The result was not in Ahmadinejad's favor. The Europeans kept their promise to Israel, and last Saturday achieved a small majority for a resolution against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency. The resolution said that Iran has violated its undertakings and the issue should be taken up by the UN Security Council. No schedule was set, nor was there any threat of sanctions, but the direction is clear.

Israel commended the "step in the right direction" and senior officials predicted that in the next round in November, the decisions will have teeth. The Iranian response sounded, how embarrassing, like Israel's responses to the resolutions against it in the UN and the International Court of Justice.

The nuclear confrontation is not over and it is not clear whether Iran will get the bomb before it caves in to the pressures. Russia and China are supporting it and the world oil market will have difficulty coping with another price rise because of sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad can smile.

The good news is that despite the chaos in Iraq and the destruction in New Orleans, America has not retreated into its shell but is still dictating the international and regional agenda. This raises the hope that the West will succeed in stopping the threatening Iranian project after all.