Can Ahmadinejad successfully break the ice between Iran and the US?

09/20/2010 04:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, arrived in New York surprisingly a few days early on the eve of Saturday September 19 apparently to attend the Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, which is set to convene this Monday. If all goes as Mr. Ahmadinejad plans, he will stay in the United States for almost one week just to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations. In an interview with ABC on Sunday, Mr. Ahmadinejad told Christiane Amanpour that Sara Shourd's release from prison last week by the Islamic Republic was a demonstration of the Islamic republic latest approaches of dialogue with the US. But we "haven't got that much response," he said.

Rumors have been circulating in Iran that Mr. Ahmadinejad may have plans to open new dialogue with the US during his visit to New York this week. During a recent Friday prayer sermon in Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, one of the most controversial Friday prayer leaders in the Iranian capital, implicitly accused the Iranian president of wanting to push for direct talks with the US, compelling Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to publicly respond that it is not the president, but the supreme leader who will decide when and under what circumstances any meetings would take place between America and Iran. "The time didn't come because the Americans didn't change their behavior, and we can't (yet) trust them (enough) to have mutual talks with them, "Ayatollah Khamenei said.

So why is Iran's president willing to stay in the US for as long as one week and repeat his request for a meeting with President Obama when his country's supreme leader and other key leaders back in Tehran have openly stated their opposition to US-Iran talks?

Iran's president is attempting to take a major step towards opening a new channel of communication between Washington and Tehran. The only way for him to express his willingness to talk with the US, and call for the normalization of relations between the two countries in the face of such strong opposition from Iran's orthodox religious leaders, is by doing sopublicly--as he has been doing. It is Mr. Ahmadinejad's affiliation with the country's Principalists, as well as his conservative background, have allowed him to surpass the efforts of Reformist president Mohammad Khatami to foster any sort of US-Iran dialogue. Iran's president believes he received 25 million votes in last June's presidential elections, and considers himself eligible and authorized to make crucial decisions and enact major changes to Iranian policy.

Mr. Ahmadinejad may also be focusing on altering Iran's image in the eyes of western countries to create the perception of an Iran in which the president is a more empowered player despite the stipulations of the Iranian constitution, which places the power of the president second to that of the supreme leader. Just one day before Mr. Ahmadinejad left Tehran for New York, he challenged one of the Islamic Republic's most significant institutions-- the Majles, or Parliament. "Today the Parliament is not the front runner of all affairs," he said. This is of great significance politically because it was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic, who said that Iran's Parliament is the ultimate legislator and in charge of all country's affairs. Mr. Ahmadinejad's latest clash with the Majles may therefore also be considered an indirect challenge to the authority and power of Iran's supreme leader.

But can Mr. Ahmadinejad successfully break the ice between Iran and the US in the face of such resistance from Iran's supreme leader and so many of the country's senior clerics?

If the government's brutal crackdown in the aftermath of Iran's contested presidential elections had not taken place, Mr. Ahmadinejad's most recent actions could have made him an extremely popular president. But the way Iranian security forces and the Basij militia crushed the opposition and those who protested the result of the presidential election broke the hearts of millions of Iranians, even those who may not have even supported the opposition. Healing this wound and reconciling with Iranian intellectuals and the country's middle class is now a priority for President Ahmadinejad. This is evident from both his rhetoric and actions, such as expressing adoration for Iran's pre-Islamic Achaemenian era by claiming that Cyrus the Great was "like one of the prophets," and talking about the importance of Iranian culture rather than Islamic culture.

Nevertheless, referring to the importance of Iranian heritage can gain him internal popularity while normalizing the US-Iran relationship can be seen as a huge achievement. For many Iranians, renewed American-Iranian ties symbolize the end of hostile behavior from both countries, the lifting of sanctions and an improved economy, and to some degree, the beginning of the end of the mullahs' totalitarian rule.

For now, however, it appears that it may ultimately be easier for Mr. Ahmadinejad to boost his popularity by reinforcing the country's nationalistic pride, rather than thinking of a meeting with President Obama and normalizing relations.