UNITED NATIONS | Speaking to the U.N. in 2008, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the "Zionist regime" of Israel murderers, and his comments last year to the U.N. General Assembly were so stark they prompted a walkout by other nations. In the run-up to his address Thursday, the diminutive leader predicted the end of capitalism.
To some observers, Mr. Ahmadinejad's obsessive ramblings are the sign of an unhinged madman; other analysts say his incendiary rhetoric is part of a calculated effort to provoke the international community and cater to hard-line supporters at home.
Whatever his motivations, as the leader of a country that the U.S. thinks is pursuing nuclear weapons, he presents one of the thorniest challenges to President Obama as both men, and dozens of other world leaders, come to New York for Thursday's opening session of the U.N. General Assembly.
"Mr. Ahmadinejad is most certainly not mentally imbalanced - he is a master of manipulation. ... His ambitions are not limited to being the president of Iran; he wants to be spokesperson of a much greater movement which manages to mobilize the population of the world, not only even the Muslim world but the entire world, against so-called imperialists and foreign enemies such as the United States," said Ali Alfoneh, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
"From his perspective, it is more important and better to be infamous than not to be famous at all," Mr. Alfoneh concluded.
Indeed, it's Mr. Ahmadinejad's thirst for publicity - as well as his often questionable grip on power back home - that leads Mr. Alfoneh and other analysts to warn against inflating his importance. Instead, they argue, world leaders should focus their attention on the nation's Revolutionary Guard Corps and the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
So far, the Obama administration seems to be doing just that. Both this year and last, the president used the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year, to reach out to Iranian citizens in a video message.
In those and other remarks, he repeatedly stresses that the U.S. quarrel is not with the Iranian people themselves, but with the Islamist government.
That strategy, say the White House and its backers, has given the U.S. credibility by making an effort to engage on the one hand as it pursued both multilateral and unilateral sanctions on the other.
"I think the U.S. has, on the whole, taken the right approach in trying first to engage Iran and then second to shape and shift its calculations through not only the sanctions but also the signaling that comes with" a recent boost in U.S. weapons sales to the Middle East, said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
But not everyone says that trying to engage a regime run by Mr. Ahmadinejad is the right track.
Potkin Azarmehr, a prominent Iranian-born blogger, said Mr. Ahmadinejad is a "messianic lunatic" incapable of reasoning.
"Good luck to anyone who wants to engage with the most audacious liar. How can anyone negotiate with someone who all of a sudden, despite all the evidence, claims Sakineh [Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman on death row for adultery] was never sentenced to stoning, or there is 'complete freedom' in Iran and there is no restriction on his opposition?" Mr. Azarmehr said.
"Hard-liners in Iran like Ahmadinejad are not interested in engagement; their niche market is the anti-U.S. Muslim population outside Iran, it's for them they want to be a hero."
His comments at the United Nations in recent years indicate that the Iranian leader revels in controversy. In 2008, at the cusp of the Wall Street meltdown, Mr. Ahmadinejad bemoaned the "Zionists," whom he described in classic anti-Semitic imagery as a "minuscule minority" that has been dominating the world's financial and decision-making centers, and said that "American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road."
Perhaps his most notorious statement came during a speech in Tehran in October 2005, when he reportedly declared that Israel must be "wiped off the map."
But he also has tried to portray himself as a defender of the world's poor, using his speeches to lament a world economic system he says leaves billions in poverty while those in some nations "seek to rule the world, relying on weapons and threats."
Mr. Ahmadinejad's government has refused to give U.N. inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities. This fuels widespread speculation that the nation is pursuing a nuclear weapon, something Iranian leaders have vehemently denied.
In response, the U.S. and its allies in June succeeded in pushing through a fourth round of U.N. sanctions - an action that the U.S. and European Union followed up by imposing tougher unilateral sanctions aimed at crippling Iran's financial industry.
Mr. Obama is likely to tout those successes in his speech to the General Assembly, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday on Air Force One.
"I think the president will take this opportunity when he speaks tomorrow to update the American people and update the world on the priorities that we had in coming into office, the progress that we've made in Iraq and Afghanistan, the progress we've made on nonproliferation, in dealing with threats like North Korea and Iran, and I think a particular focus on the real opportunity that we have to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East," Mr. Gibbs said.
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