CAIRO — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a flinty populist in a zip-up jacket whose scathing rhetoric and defiance of Washington are often caricatured in the Western media, has transcended national and religious divides to become a folk hero across the Middle East.
The diminutive, at times inscrutable, president is a wellspring of stinging sound-bites and swagger for Muslims who complain that their leaders are too beholden to or frightened of the Bush administration. Ahmadinejad, who arrived in New York Sunday ahead of a U.N. General Assembly meeting, is an easily marketable commodity: a streetwise politician with nuclear ambitions and an open microphone.
"I like him a lot," said Mahmoud Ali, a medical student in Cairo. "He's trying to protect himself and his nation from the dangers around him. He makes me feel proud. He's a symbol of Islam. He seems the only person capable of taking a stand against Israel and the West. Unfortunately, Egypt has gotten too comfortable with Washington."
Ahmadinejad's appeal is especially strong in Egypt, where he is compared to the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose bold, yet doomed vision of pan-Arabism in the 1950s was also aimed at stemming Western influence. In the minds of many Egyptians, Iran's quest to expand its nuclear program despite United Nations sanctions is similar to Nasser's confrontation with the British and French over nationalizing the Suez Canal.
What's striking in Ahmadinejad's case, however, is that the leader of a non-Arab Shiite nation has ingratiated himself with the Middle East's predominantly Sunni Arab population.
In praising the Iranian president, Arabs quickly navigate around historical religious animosities and present-day fears that Iran is undermining Sunnis in Iraq and elsewhere. They prefer to speak of how Ahmadinejad is a rallying voice for Islam at a time the region is bewildered by its powerlessness to fix Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"He's a brave man," said Tayseer Ibrahim, an employee of the Egyptian Education Ministry, who was hurrying toward the subway the other day. "He's standing up to the U.S. He could have been intimidated after what happened to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but he's not. The Iranian people must love him a lot. Hopefully, our Arab leaders will see that you can defy the West and nothing will happen to you."
Munther Farrah, who sells nuts and chocolates in Amman, the Jordanian capital, said he and other Sunnis are troubled by Iran's Shiite theocracy. "But Ahmadinejad is still liked," he said. "We are with him as long as he's against Israel and the U.S."
The passions are decidedly different in New York, where Ahmadinejad is scheduled to address the U.N. on Tuesday in an effort to block another round of sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program. Some American politicians have said the Iranian president should be turned away. Public pressure has forced him to cancel a visit to Ground Zero.
His U.N. appearance comes as Iran, which the U.S. regards as a state sponsor of terrorism, balances two diplomatic tracks: It has moved to soften international criticism of its human rights record by allowing three Iranian American academics and writers accused of spying to leave the country. On the other hand, it has intensified its defiance of the U.S. and Europe after the French foreign minister suggested that the world prepare for the possibility of war between Western nations and Iran.
The static of threats and counter-threats has enhanced Ahmadinejad's brand of populism, which stands in vivid contrast to the detached styles of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. All three U.S. allies regard Iran as a dangerous enemy, most notably over Tehran's support of the militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But they have also borrowed a bit from Ahmadinejad's script by criticizing Bush administration policies and the bloodshed in Iraq.
The governments in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have undercut media freedom and suppressed political dissent, and are viewed by some of their people as corrupt and ineffectual in addressing economic and social problems. Iran runs its own version of the omnipresent, repressive state, but Ahmadinejad's intense distrust of the U.S. and hatred of Israel have elevated him to mythical status for the frustrated Arab mechanic, taxi driver or lawyer seeking a pure, forceful message.
The sentiment is similar to the respect won by Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, and Hamas, the radical Palestinian party that seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. Both were credited with tenacity and portrayed as underdogs battling against larger enemies. This type of resolve, along with Iran's pride as a sovereign state, echoes through Ahmadinejad's speeches and asides.