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Ahmadinejad Talking Tough, Walking Like a Lame Duck

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s words were defiant Monday, as he scoffed at Israel’s threat to attack Iranian nuclear sites.

“Fundamentally, we do not take seriously the threats of the Zionists,” he told us, some two dozen American journalists, at a mid-town New York hotel. “We have all the defensive means at our disposal and we are ready to defend ourselves.” He dismissed Israel itself as a temporary interloper in the Middle East, an historical blip that would soon pass.

But the man we saw hunched before a microphone early this morning wasn’t the same feisty, combative figure I’d seen on a visit to Tehran back in 2006 at a press conference with some 100 foreign and Iranian journalists, as a U.N. Security Council deadline to freeze its uranium enrichment approached. As I told NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer on air that night, Ahmadinejad had gone “right on offense,” defying the United Nations and challenging then-President George W. Bush to a televised debate. He was brash and cocky, making his arguments with flourish, and he seemed to enjoy sparring with reporters.

Today he appeared tired, his arguments by now well-worn after nearly eight years in power. A senior Iranian diplomat present agreed Ahmadinejad seemed subdued. “It’s because of what’s going on back in Tehran,” the diplomat said. The president is the lamest of lame ducks — now in his last year in office, barred from seeking re-election last year, and widely believed to be on the political outs with the aptly named Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Ahmadinejad seemed almost wistful this morning as he noted that he’s the first Iranian president to come to eight straight U.N. General Assembly meetings as Iran’s president, but this is his last.

Still, what he had to say was chilling for those who fear that Iran, Israel, and with it, the United States, are in a slow-motion slide toward war. If he’s to be believed, Tehran is neither concerned nor dissuaded by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s most recent public warnings. The Israeli leader told NBC’s “Meet the Press” one week ago that Iran is just six months away from having enough medium enriched uranium to turn around a nuclear weapon quickly at a time of its choosing, and must be stopped, by military attack if needed. “They’re in the red zone, they’re in the last 20 yards,” Netanyahu said. “You can’t let them cross that goal line.” I asked Ahmadinejad today whether he thought Netanyahu was bluffing. “Whether he’s bluffing or he really intends, that does not even come into the equation for us,” he responded. “Iran has been around for the past 7,000, 10,000 years. They (Israel) have been occupying those territories for the last 60 to 70 years with the support of force of the Westerners. They have no roots there in history.”

He warmed to the theme. Israel is nothing but “a system that’s been fabricated” he said, propped up by Western powers who are growing tired of the burden. He didn’t repeat his 2005 statement that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map, but his meaning was clear. “We don’t even count them as any part of the equation for Iran.” In the broad sweep of Middle East history, he said. They represent minimal disturbances that come into the picture and are then eliminated.”

What’s more, he added, with a tinge of the old cockiness, Israeli bombing couldn’t destroy all of Iran’s nuclear facilities anyway. “Iran is a vast country,” he said. “Iran will not be damaged with foreign bombs.”

If the Supreme Leader shares Ahmadinejad’s belief in Iran’s historical inevitability and invulnerability, it doesn’t bode well for President Obama’s hope that hard-headed bargaining after the election will persuade Iran to stand down its enrichment program before it triggers a military response.

Iran is on a pell-mell enrichment rush, and it’s paying off. Just since last September, its deeply buried Fordow enrichment plant has grown from zero centrifuges to more than 2,000. Since February, Iran’s stockpile of medium enrichment uranium has doubled according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“The closer they get to the nuclear-weapons-capable threshold, the less room either side has to maneuver,” said former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution. “It makes Israel more nervous, and makes it more urgent for us to show negotiations can bring results. And it increases the temptation on Iran’s part to just go for it. So we’re entering a very dangerous period, in which the risk of miscalculation increases.”

It will be a dicey, risky hand to play for whoever wins the White House.

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