This article was published today in the Gulf News under the headline: What is Ahmadinejad's agenda?
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent the last weekend visiting three capitals in Latin America as part of a campaign to heighten the Islamic republic's international profile.
His first port of call was Caracas, capital of Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez received him as a "hero of the struggle against American imperialism".
Chavez, hoping to assume the mantle of radical leadership in Latin America after the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, also said that Ahmadinejad's visit was a symbol of "two revolutions coming together to form a mighty current" to defeat the United States.
Next, Ahmadinejad went to Managua to meet Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista guerrilla leader who has just returned as Nicaragua's president.
The third leg of the Iranian leader's tour took him to Quito, capital of Ecuador, where another anti-American leader Rafael Correa has just won the presidency.
This is Ahmadinejad's second visit to Latin America in four months. In his first visit, he met Chavez and called on the ailing Castro and his brother Raul.
Ahmadinejad has promised to return in spring, this time to visit yet another left-wing leader, President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Why is Ahmadinejad so interested in Latin America?
According to the official media in Tehran, the visit is a response to the recent trip to the Middle East by British Premier Tony Blair and the US Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice who came to probe the possibility of crating a " bloc of moderate states" to oppose Iran's alleged ambitions.
Just as the US and Britain are trying to take the Islamic republic on in its own backyard, Ahmadinejad hopes to lead a bloc of anti-US powers in America's own backyard.
Claim to leadership
Another reason for the visit may be to put down markers for Iran's claim to the leadership of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), once the current Cuban term expires.
To most people in the West, NAM either does not ring a bell or is remembered as a relic of the Cold War. In the so-called developing world, however, especially in radical circles, NAM still evokes nostalgic memories of a mythical golden age of Third World solidarity against superpowers.
Ahmadinejad's second objective is to debunk claims by his political rivals at home that his policies and rhetoric have isolated Iran.
Ahmadinejad's predecessor as president, Mohammad Khatami, made more than 30 foreign visits in his first term and became the first leader of the Islamic republic to be feted on state visits to almost all major Western European capitals.
Khatami also visited most major Muslim capitals, again becoming the first Islamic republic leader to receive red carpet welcome everywhere.
Ahmadinejad, however, is effectively persona non grata in Europe while more than a year of talks to persuade Muslim countries to invite him on state visits have produced no results.
As a member of the Islamic Majlis in Tehran noted the other day it was odd that Ahmadinejad was going to far away places such as Managua and Quito but was unable to visit neighbouring capitals.
Ahmadinejad's friends dismiss such criticism as "childish". They claim that he is building a global coalition to expel the United States from the Middle East, and is not interested in talking to regimes beholden to Washington.
According to Dr Hassan Abbasi, Ahmadinejad's strategic adviser, the world is ripe for an uprising of the "humiliated nations" against American hegemony and Iran is the only "people-based" power capable of offering leadership.
In that context, Latin America has special importance because it could open an anti-American front in the United States backyard.
Ahmadinejad has not had much success in Asia.
China did invite him for the Shanghai Group's summit last year, but has shied away from offering him a full-dress state visit. Worse still, both China and Russia voted for the United Nations' Security Council resolution 1737 that represents a clear tightening of the screws against Tehran on the issue of Iranian nuclear ambitions.
North Korea remains the Islamic republic's sole reliable ally in Asia, although Malaysia has also endorsed Ahmadinejad's radicalism on a number of occasions.
Africa, too, has been less than welcoming as far as Ahmadinejad's message of "clash of civilisations" is concerned. The only state in black Africa to hail Ahmadinejad as a hero is Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe.
The change of Iran's diplomatic fortunes under Ahmadinejad is nowhere more startling than in the Arab world. The process of reconciliation with Arabs started in the 1990s under Rafsanjani through months of secret contacts with the then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and appeared to have consolidated under Khatami a decade later.
Today, however, as far as relations with Arabs are concerned, Iran is back where it was in 1989, at the end of the eight-year war with Iraq. Iran's only ally in the Arab world is Syria, itself isolated within the family of Arab nations.
Far from being motivated by classical populism as his domestic rivals claim, Ahmadinejad's strategy is based on his analysis of the prospects of the Islamic republic.
Rafsanjani and Khatami believe that the only way the Khomeinist regime could survive is to close the chapter of the revolution and turn Iran into an ordinary nation-state. Their model is Communist China.
Ahmadinejad rejects that analysis. He believes that the only way for the Khomeinist regime to insure its life against its domestic and external foes is to highlight its revolutionary profile and remain on the offensive.
He thinks he can detect a new revolutionary mood across the globe, including in the West where anti-Americanism is on the rise, even in the United States.
He also believes that the Khomeinist movement has the potential to transform this new revolutionary mood into global political power.
However, Ahmadinejad has the merit of trying to develop policies based on his beliefs. To him Rafsanjani and Khatami are yesterday's men. He wants to be tomorrow's man.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author and journalist based in Europe.
This article was published under the headline: What is Ahmadinejad's agenda?
Gulf News - Jan. 17, 2007