Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't one for ceremony. We are waiting in a villa outside Havana when Ahmadinejad strides in without notice, taking even his aides by surprise. He is wearing blue-gray trousers, black loafers and the trademark tan jacket that even he calls his "Ahmadinejad jacket." He mutters something to himself as he settles into an aging leather chair with bad springs. For a moment, he seems irked by the chair, perhaps because it makes him seem even smaller than his 5 ft. 4 in., but soon he's smiling, prodding, leaning forward to make his points. "We are living our own lives," he says, when asked about his differences with the Bush Administration. He jabs the back of my hand for emphasis. "The U.S. government should not interfere in our affairs. They should live their own lives."
When he made his first trip to the U.S. last year for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad was still a curiosity--a diminutive, plainly dressed man who had come out of nowhere to win Iran's presidential election. But in New York City this week, he won't have trouble being recognized. His incendiary statements--he has declared the Holocaust a "myth," has said Israel should be "wiped away" and has called the Jewish state "a stain of disgrace"--have made him the most polarizing head of state in the Muslim world. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has built up its influence in Lebanon and Iraq and made clear its intention to become the dominant power in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. He has also accelerated work on Iran's civilian nuclear program, which the U.S. believes is geared toward producing a nuclear bomb. Though pictures of the Iranian President often show him flashing a peace sign, his actions could well be leading the world closer to war.
For all his bluster, Ahmadinejad remains an enigma. His powers are limited by Iran's political structure, in which ultimate authority over matters of state rests with the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. The regime has threatened to retaliate against American interests "in every part of the world" if the U.S. were ever to launch a military strike against Iran. But Ahmadinejad has also made rhetorical gestures of conciliation, sending an open letter to George W. Bush and inviting the U.S. President to a televised discussion about "the ways of solving the problems of the international community." (Bush ruled it out last week. "I'm not going to meet with him," he said at a White House news conference.)
Ahmadinejad is a skilled, if slippery, debater. In his press conferences, he has shown himself to be a natural politician, gifted in the art of spin and misdirection. Our meeting took place last Saturday in a villa on the outskirts of Havana, where he was attending the confab for leaders of nonaligned nations, a gathering that included other irritants to the West such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.