“Throughout history the secret to success has been love, freedom, and justice. … Building a better tomorrow filled with freedom, justice, and love is the goal of every nation. We should all strive to achieve this goal. … The search for freedom, justice, peace, and security is only possible if there is freedom of choice. … Liberty cannot be limited, confined, or negotiated. It is a common human principle.”
These words are not parts of the UN Charter or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are excerpts from tweets posted by Iran’s former firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the course of past months. Ahmadinejad’s comments inarguably earned him renewed public attention at a time when the thus-far retired politician is not making headlines anymore like the tumultuous years of his presidency, when literally every single speech he delivered would generate an international controversy.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a newcomer to the battle of power long fought in Iran by the political heavyweights when he entered the presidential race in 2005. In the presence of such veteran politicians as the two-time former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi and former police chief Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Ahmadinejad won a surprise run-off against Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani to become the first president who wasn’t officially part of the inner circle of the Islamic Republic’s confidantes since the 1979 revolution.
A former provincial governor whose highest-ranking assignment was the Mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad ran on a campaign platform evolving around the ideas of social justice, battling corruption and distributing the oil income among the Iranian citizens evenly.
Soon after coming to power, however, it turned out that Ahmadinejad envisioned his presidency as an opportunity to enrich himself and his close friends and allies politically, financially and socially. The first indication of his corruption was the appointment of unknown figures to different ministerial posts, who were actually his close university friends, professors and former colleagues at the Tehran Municipality or the province of Ardabil, where he had served as the governor from 1993 to 1997. It didn’t take long before his campaign promises faded away.
Legacy of failure
Ahmadinejad’s aggressive foreign policy, his divisive rhetoric, diplomatic ineptitude, disdain for international norms and speeding up of Iran’s nuclear program in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions made him an internationally controversial figure under whom Iran’s relations with the outside world suffered gravely. The improvements made of Iran’s global image under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, the reformist President Mohammad Khatami, were practically undone. It was during Ahmadinejad’s time in office when the most stringent and grueling economic sanctions were imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council, the United States and the European Union. At that time, the national economy was sent into a tailspin. Even before the sanctions were introduced, his economic mismanagement was glaring and his critics accused him of cronyism and of funneling the country’s wealth to his allies and partners.
As reported by the Central Bank of Iran, the petroleum-rich nation exported a total of $639 billion worth of oil during the 2005-2012 period, which are in effect the years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Between 1965 and 2004, representing the 40-year period preceding Ahmadinejad’s tenure, Iran exported a total of $582 billion worth of oil. The value of Iran’s oil exports in President Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office surpassed that of the foregoing four decades. And yet nobody understood how this huge sum of money was spent without the economy, exports, employment and tourism experiencing a boost. In Ahmadinejad’s last two years as president, Iran’s GDP contracted by 6.6 percent and 1.9 percent respectively. The inflation rate in 2013 stood at 39 percent. Vehicle production fell by around 40 percent between 2011 and 2013. And other economic indicators were similarly disappointing.
However, a miserable economy was not the only product of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
In foreign policy, he rendered Iran a pariah in the community of nations. His fiery speeches at the United Nations General Assembly and his verbal attacks on the United States, European Union and Israel prompted a number of walkouts and boycotts by Western diplomats. In Iran, people used to say ironically that he normally delivered speeches for empty chairs of the UN General Assembly Hall. He was booed and spurred another walkout at the 2009 Durban Review Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
In that event, which was a UN gathering to address racism, Ahmadinejad was the only head of state attending, and his lengthy tirade against Israel in which he questioned the Holocaust was met with a big international fury. BBC termed the mass walkout of delegates of nearly 30 countries from the conference hall a “public relations disaster” for the United Nations.
In 2007, he submitted a request to the U.S. government to pay an official visit to the site of the 9/11 attacks, Ground Zero. The New York Police Department turned down his request, citing security concerns and construction at the location. He was perhaps the only government dignitary who was not granted permission to have an official tour of Ground Zero and pay tribute to the victims of September 11 tragedy.
Ahmadinejad touted fostering friendly relations with Latin America nations as his foreign policy achievement. However, in 2012, he faced a massive political embarrassment at home after reports emerged that no Brazilian official, including his counterpart at the time, Dilma Rousseff, went to the airport to greet him upon his arrival in Brazil to attend the Rio+20 Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The discomfiture became bigger when Rousseff rejected a request by Ahmadinejad for a personal meeting. He was mocked by media and MPs in Iran because none of the leaders attending the Rio+20 Summit conferred with him, and he ended up taking a photo with the Rio de Janeiro airport security guards prior to boarding his flight back to Tehran.
The former Iranian president was a master of creating controversies. He referred to the UN Security Council resolutions urging Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities “worthless papers.” In a widely-ridiculed speech at the Columbia University in 2007, he claimed that there are no homosexuals in Iran, and was laughed at by the students attending. The university president Lee Bollinger gave a humiliating introduction to his speech, in which he described Ahmadinejad a “cruel and petty dictator” who is “brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” Despite all the criticism, Ahmadinejad hardly revised his approach.
A publicity stunt
Although viewed as a confrontational and belligerent leader internationally, Ahmadinejad was frequently approached by the foreign press for exclusive interviews and treated as a top-notch guest in major talk shows on American and European TV, and Q&A sessions with international newspapers. Perhaps his controversial remarks were what these media outlets believed would entertain their audience in a unique way and add to their viewership and circulation.
And the hardline former president who was ostensibly fond of photo opportunities, publicity and pageantry, seized on these media prospects to become more famous, capture global attention and win popularity among people who both sympathized with his opinions and found them audacious.
It’s comprehensible that lacking access to those opportunities, and not being the center of attention anymore represent unfavorable situations to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So, in a desperate bid to stay on the fringes of the media radar, Ahmadinejad is using his Twitter account to comment on global issues, in flawed English, issue statements about such fancy and stylish ideas as peace, friendship, love, kindness and justice, and also delve into the U.S. sports, culture and politics, most probably in order to be hunted by the U.S. media.
Some of Ahmadinejad’s recent tweets include references to the birthday of the American King of Pop Michael Jackson, which is ironic considering that he had declared a ban on Western music being played by the state radio and TV stations in 2005. Ahmadinejad has also opined on the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the 1994 murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman attributed to O.J. Simpson, the birthday of Malcolm X, and the death of noted American rapper Nipsey Hussle.
Somebody who doesn’t know Ahmadinejad and reads his tweets about universal values of freedom, liberty, justice and equality might readily conclude that the person behind them is an erudite intellectual who is concerned about the state of the world and has concrete solutions for its problems. His tweets about American sports, culture and politics also impart the impression that he is genuinely enthusiastic about the United States, its history and its people.
In a tweet on June 14, he congratulated the Toronto Raptors on winning the 2018-19 National Basketball Association (NBA) championship, adding,“If I were president, I would definitely invite you all to Iran.”
However, for the former constituents of Ahmadinejad and the critics who know his worldview and personality well, the offer of inviting the Raptors to Iran is hypocritical, as much as his apparent enchantment with American culture and public figures is phony.
In February 2009, the Ahmadinejad administration refused to grant visas to the members of the U.S. women table tennis team, who were planning to visit Iran as part of an initiative by the U.S. Department of State to foster people-to-people exchanges between the two nations.
As an ardent anti-Western, anti-American leader, Ahmadinejad never spared any opportunity to launch vituperative attacks on the United States, the European countries, and, of course, Israel. It was during his tenure that Iran’s relations with the West in general plummeted to an all-time low. On different occasions, he described the United States a “dictatorship,” “a terrorist regime,” and “a bullying, arrogant power” and he once called America a “quadruped” mired in the “region’s swamp.” So, it’s a bit odd that he is trying to give the impression of a U.S.-loving thinker today, and there’s no way to interpret his appeals other than to say that he is on a quest for fanfare and visibility.
Ahmadinejad might be able to get a few mentions in the Washington Post, the New York Times and other mainstream U.S. media outlets over his Twitter masquerade. However, for him to play the role of a peace-loving, courteous, sagacious scholar who never addressed the United States as “the bogeyman snatched the boob” is not merely duplicitous, it’s implausible. The reality is that he is the leader who was behind the nationwide ban on Twitter and other social media, and is now turning to the same venues to get his words out.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is a correspondent with Fair Observer and a contributor to Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) fellowship and an East-West Center’s Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship. Kourosh's writings have appeared on openDemocracy, The Huffington Post, Al-Arabiya, Al-Monitor, Gateway House, BBC Persian and Middle East Eye, among others. Kourosh has conducted more than 500 interviews with prominent world leaders, politicians, public intellectuals, scholars, academicians and some 30 Nobel Prize laureates. He is an elected individual member of Chatham House and has delivered talks at Goldsmiths, University of London and Cambridge Union.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.