TEHRAN, Iran – “If he’s convinced he’s right, he’s not going to change his mind, no matter what anyone says,” said the president’s friend. Though such assessments are frequently used to characterize President Bush, in this case it was a description of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bush’s counterpart in Iran.
The friend in this case is Nasser Hadian-Jazy, an associate professor of political science at Tehran University, who has known Ahmadinejad since grade school, and has recently become a minor celebrity in the West because of his friend’s ascent to power.
“I wonder why more people haven’t noticed how much alike they are,” he says, speaking of the two leaders.
Though both men would deny it emphatically, the parallels between their presidencies are obvious and unavoidable. Each came to power in controversial elections, and each brought with him a new and decidedly conservative outlook on governing.
Each invokes the name of God frequently in speeches, a habit that has attracted the disdain of the country’s elite, while drawing the rock-ribbed, fundamentalist religious believers closer to him.
Each has made statements that ricocheted around the world and were variously interpreted as straight talk or heedless bellicosity, verging on war fervor.
Neither dresses with particular élan. And neither, to put it kindly, has a reputation for elegance in public speaking.
In the U.S. and much of Europe — in short, the traditional center of the Christian world — Ahmadinejad comes across as an out-of-control anti-Semite who wants Israel destroyed and who would risk his country’s survival on a gamble that the world will not and cannot stop him from producing a nuclear weapons arsenal.
From Tehran — and by extension, much of the Islamic world — Bush is seen as a simpleton with the world’s mightiest military ready to do his reckless bidding as he tries to reshape the Middle East according to Western principles of democracy.
Neither man can hope for much support in the other’s homeland. Ahmadinejad rightly forfeited any chance to be heard impartially in the West with his ill-considered statements questioning the reality of the Holocaust and his promise that Israel would be wiped off the map. Bush’s image in Iran, where there is no official American presence, is shaped almost entirely by a vitriolic Iranian media that caricatures him as anything from Hitler to a drooling caveman.
And yet, like or loathe them, both presidents have a relatively straightforward foreign policy and clear-cut social priorities tied closely to their respective religious backgrounds. In Bush’s case, the attacks of 9/11 helped shape his worldview, in which terrorist threats to Western democracy could not simply be opposed, but wiped out. The doctrine that anyone who harbors a terrorist is also a terrorist plays well in the U.S. But across the broad Middle East, it created waves of panic as U.S. troops invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq. “Who will this guy go after next?” is the subtext to almost every political conversation here with Iranians.
Bush has claimed the authority to go after terrorists anywhere in the world; Ahmadinejad the right to develop nuclear technology that could be used to wage nuclear war upon anyone.
Unlike Bush, the Iranian may not be the author of his own foreign policy. His detractors suspect that he is merely mouthing the thoughts of the ultra-conservative clergy who hold real power in this Islamic republic, especially the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some question whether Ahmadinejad, whose last job was mayor of Tehran, even understands what he is saying.
Yet his odious remarks about Israel tap into a widespread Iranian hatred, bordering on the pathological, of the Jewish state. To that extent, he is playing to his base.
Bush’s social agenda is infused with his religious convictions, but he appears unable to push it through. He opposes most abortion, which remains legal in America. He supports a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, which failed to pass the Senate earlier this month. He says he is a fiscal conservative, yet, due largely to the war in Iraq, has presided over record government spending and deficits.
His Iranian counterpart faces similar frustrations. Ahmadinejad says one thing about the hottest social issues in Iran but does another. He issued a decree permitting women to attend soccer games along with men, but backed down as soon as Khamenei voiced opposition. He has called upon the population to demonstrate its religious devotion, yet attendance at the Friday prayer sessions in Iran is down from millions each week to tens of thousands. Professions like prostitution and gambling are strictly outlawed by Islamic government, but flourish under the disinterested gaze of the once-feared revolutionary guards.
A Beltway insider recently predicted that Bush’s approval ratings, which have gone as low as 30%, have bottomed out and will soon rebound precisely because he has stayed true to his core beliefs. Gallup has not been invited to test Ahmadinejad's public standing. But intimates of the Iranian president confidently predict that he, too, will stay the course. To him, as to Bush, remaining true to his conscience is also a virtue.
John Moody is Senior Vice President, Fox News Editorial.