09/24/2012 05:34 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Ahmadinejad's Last Hurrah

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York for this fall's session of the United Nations General Assembly--his last hurrah at the world body before his presidency ends next summer. He clearly is not in a mellow mood.

In a meeting this morning with three dozen American policy thinkers and commentators, Ahmadinejad seemed to rebuff virtually every invitation to re-set Iran's troubled relationship with the United States. He was impressively oblivious to the legacy he will leave behind. For if any Iranian asks whether Iran's place on the world stage is better than it was when he won election seven years ago, the answer is surely no.

For a flickering instant in his meeting, Ahmadinejad seemed to acknowledge that the hostility that characterizes U.S.-Iranian relations is not helpful to either: "I accept that the conditions between the United States and Iran have negatively affected both--and perhaps negatively affected the world at large." But there is no shared responsibility for the embittered relations. For Ahmadinejad, the fault is exclusively Washington's "past history."

Iranians, he observed, "expected the United States to embrace their revolution" against the Shah's tyranny--a revolution that was about freedom and democracy. When an American who was among the diplomats taken hostage by Iran in 1979 protested the Ahmadinejad government's reinstatement of a holiday celebrating the November 4 takeover, Ahmadinejad replied that "the students treated you well," even allowing them cookies from home for Christmas--"not like these demonstrators today who kill people" when they take over embassies.

The president's message to Americans (a bit different from what his government has acknowledged to the Iranian parliament) is that the international sanctions that are tightening around Iran's economy are barely an annoyance: "we can withstand the problems." And now that the Europeans have joined in applying the same tough financial sanctions as Washington, "look at who is facing the bigger economic problems--us or the Europeans?"

The president took note of the State Department's announcement that it is removing the Mujahedeen el-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group it has long identified as a terrorist organization, from its foreign terrorist list. "We're very happy at this action," he claimed, saying that it saves Tehran from having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a "propaganda campaign" to convince world publics of U.S. hypocrisy--now Washington "did this for us, for free!"

Princeton's Dan Kurtzer, formerly U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, exhorted the president to stop calling Israel that "Zionist entity" and suggested that Iran couple its demands for changes in Israeli policies with an acknowledgment of its existence as a state. No way, answered Ahmadinejad: "We do not recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist regime at all." (He had earlier told a breakfast meeting of journalists that Israelis "have no roots there in history," a curious inversion of Newt Gingrich's assertion that the Palestinians are "an invented people.") Indeed, Ahmadinejad added, "the head of the Zionist regime tells the United States what it must do, tells it what are the 'red lines'."

Ahmadinejad did hold out Afghanistan as one area where even Iran's hardliners see convergent interests with the Americans. "The Afghanistan issue can be resolved at much lower expense, at a much lower burden, and we're ready to help. But there must be mutual respect.

"We have very bitter memories of the last administration," Ahmadinejad added. "We helped on Afghanistan, and then we were branded an 'axis of evil'."

Of course, Ahmadinejad was not part of the "we" who had acted constructively at the December 2001 Bonn conference in assembling a representative post-Taliban government for Afghanistan. It was the reformist government led by then-president Mohammad Khatami. And yes, the Bush administration stunningly then slapped Khatami's Iran with the speechwriter's conceit that Ahmadinejad is happy to quote.

But Americans have reached their verdict on President Bush's administration. His own party has air-brushed him from history, and could not cite a single foreign policy accomplishment of his years in its 2012 party platform, save for an AIDS program in Africa.

While Ahmadinejad may not face journalists hurling shoes at him in Iraq, his own legacy for Iran is already deeply negative.

When President Khatami left office, Iran was widely seen as a fairly responsible contributor to the international community, initiating a United Nations "dialogue of civilizations" and constructively engaging at the United Nations on issues ranging from Afghanistan to terrorism. It was Bush's America that suffered international isolation.

With Ahmadinejad as the very public spokesman for Iranian foreign policy, the country is estranged from the international community. His hard line on the nuclear program has resulted in ever stricter international sanctions against Iran, backed by the usually sanctions-averse Russians and Chinese--an outcome that Iranian diplomats warned would be the result if he took that route. His gratuitously incendiary comments about Israel, which earned a public rebuke to his face from U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, have been a godsend to the Israeli right.

On Ahmadinejad's watch, despite the country's talented diplomats, Iranian foreign policy is now widely reviled. If Iran's electoral machinery still offers even a pale facsimile of democratic choice, we may expect presidential aspirants next year to contest his policies and his legacy. And without the radioactive Ahmadinejad at the forefront, it may yet be possible to find a rapprochement between America and Iran, of the sort that President Obama had vowed to seek nearly four years ago.