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Why Ahmadinejad Thinks He's So Special

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s performance at this week’s 66th annual General Assembly will not disappoint. Far from being cowed by Supreme Leader Khamenei’s displeasure and ongoing accusations of his associates’ financial corruption at home, Ahmadinejad will continue to entertain pundits with stories of the Islamic Republic’s magnificent achievements (under his leadership of course), outrageous 9/11 conspiracy theories involving the United States, objections to official Holocaust narratives, and Iran’s divine right to uranium enrichment. 

While Ahmadinejad’s hyperboles and hubris have made him a star on the American comedic track, with rarified cameo appearances by lookalikes on NBC’s "Saturday Night Live," the Iranian president’s performance should not be discounted as an act or sideshow. Rather it should be seen as a manifestation of a profound narcissistic personality, whose pathology will prevent this leader from respecting international conventions. This is bound to disappoint diplomats who are hoping for a more accommodating president during this General Assembly.

Some Iran watchers in Washington continue to hold fast to the notion that Ahmadinejad’s grandstanding is a shrewd political ploy to enhance his populist and anti-Western image among his base and not to be taken at face value. 

Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s willingness to challenge the supreme leader has been touted as a counterweight to clerical hegemony and a potential inroad to a grand-bargain that might achieve the long-sought diplomatic normalization with Iran. 

There is even an undercurrent of hope that Ahmadinejad will distance himself from the controversies that had dominated his prior General Assembly appearance. 

This faith is misplaced. 

Ahmadinejad’s exaggerated sense of himself as being uniquely special, unusually talented, and better qualified than other leaders on the world stage is typical of individuals struggling with narcissistic personality disorder. 

Like other narcissists, Ahmadnejad’s inflated view of his importance and genius will distort his perception of the realities of global diplomatic forces. This will make it unlikely for him to show flexibility in response to pressures or incentives on limiting or ending Iran’s uranium enrichment, even at the expense of his countrymen who are facing unprecedented international economic sanctions. 

Ahmadinejad’s pathology drives him to seek the critical acclaim of others and he will gravitate towards like-minded leaders such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. These “fraternal” relationships reinforce his uncompromising and opaque views of global diplomacy and will blind him to the sound council of friendly countries at the Assembly such as Brazil and Turkey who hope to sway Iran towards a more amenable course on the nuclear issue.

Ahmadinejad’s sense of superiority functions as a defense against inner feelings of helplessness and shame which probably grew out of a childhood beset by poverty and adversity as the needy son of a provincial blacksmith. Therefore, this aggrandized self-perception is used as a shield to ward off profound feelings of vulnerability to humiliation. As I recently explained to an Iranian policy expert, Ahmadinejad is a Joe Pesci character in international politics—a little man who is fighting to be seen as bigger and better than he really is. He therefore truly believes his distorted views of the world: everything from winning the Iranian elections “fair and square” to his special personally relationships with the revered Shi’i twelfth Imam in occultation. He sees his successes as an entitled right and gives himself full license to disregard ethics and rules, be it domestic or international.

By his very nature, Ahmadinejad experiences an admission of fault or even a reprimand by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei as psychic castration. The world saw a facet of this behavior several months ago when Ahmadinejad decided to boycott his presidential duties for over a week when the Supreme leader ordered the reinstatement of Heydar Moslehi, the Minister of Intelligence, over his objections.

Rather than trying to engage Ahmadinejad as a pragmatic leader, the world community should see the Iranian president as the flawed personality that he is. Giving him due recognition on stage be it at press conferences, the United Nations, or Columbia University only reinforces his distorted faith in continuing the harmful political course. 

Like most narcissists only when Ahamdinejad faces head-on the shame and humiliation that he so strongly wants to avoid that there can there be any hope for a change in direction. 

It is time for the International community to shame this president, not only in the name of a stolen election and thousands of political prisoners in Iran but in the hope of jolting this country towards a policy that will lend itself to peace and prosperity in the region.

Amir A. Afkhami is a Professor of Psychiatry and Global Health at the George Washington University.