NEW YORK-Membership in the "axis of evil" has its upside.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the most sought-after foreign leader at the United Nations this week and U.S. policies are a big reason. Thanks to the Bush administration's removal of Saddam Hussein and refusal to negotiate with Iran before its nuclear program had advanced and Iraq became a bloody morass, Iran is more powerful and Ahmadinejad is the diplomatic catch of the day.
Yet Ahmadinejad's New York extravaganza cannot mask growing domestic vulnerabilities. Despite record oil prices, the Iranian regime is facing popular discontent because of high inflation and unemployment. Economic sanctions are cutting into European trade and investment. Iranian leaders tend to blame the Bush administration for all these problems. So it was important that wherever Ahmadinejad and his entourage went in New York-from Columbia University to a meeting with anti-war Christian leaders-they heard the same refrain from nonofficial Americans: Stop denying the Holocaust, accept Israel's right to exist, ease domestic repression, behave better in Iraq and suspend a provocative uranium program so Iran can take its rightful place as a responsible power in the Middle East.
Most of what Ahmadinejad said in return was boilerplate. When confronted with hard questions, he often raised irrelevant points or simply lied. But there were glimmers suggesting that some of the criticism is sinking in. At Columbia University, for example, Ahmadinejad acknowledged that the Holocaust is "a reality of our time, a history that occurred", while still saying that the Nazi murder of six million Jews could use more "research" and that the Palestinians should not have been punished for the crimes of Europeans.
Told at a dinner with think tankers and media people that many Americans liken him to Hitler, Ahmadinejad called the Nazi leader "despicable" and responsible for the deaths of 60 million people.
Critics also put Ahmadinejad on the spot for Iran's recent jailing of four Iranian-Americans-the last of whom was released while Ahmadinejad was in New York. When Gary Sick, Jimmy Carter's Iran adviser during the 1979-81 hostage crisis, told Ahmadinejad that the arrests had had a chilling effect on the academic exchanges the Iranian leader professed to support, Ahmadinejad tried to change the subject and distort the facts, but was clearly embarrassed.
The criticism that may have had the most resonance for him-as someone who claims to be extremely religious-came from a group of anti-war Christians who have worked for years to improve U.S. relations with Iran.
Politely urged by them to accept Israel's right to exist roughly within its 1967 borders, Ahmadinejad replied that Iran would not attack any country and had more reason to fear Israel than Israel did Iran. The "Zionist regime", he said, would disappear peacefully as the old Soviet Union had "through the will and vote of the people."
Admittedly, these are nuances that hardly prove Ahmadinejad has turned into a peacenik. Still, in office now for more than two years, the son of a blacksmith, who has spent most of his life in a poor neighborhood of Tehran, is getting a foreign education. As easy as it is to demonize and ridicule him, Ahmadinejad is a member of a collective leadership that will make decisions in the next few months that could improve the prospects for peace in a troubled region or lead to another devastating conflict. While there is still time, Iranians and Americans should make use of every opportunity for dialogue, even if sometimes it seems like a dialogue of the deaf. As one religious leader, Drew Christiansen, told Ahmadinejad in New York, quoting Winston Churchill: "to jaw jaw is always better than to war war."
Barbara Slavin, senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today and a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, is the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, to be published October 16 by St. Martin's Press.