Ahmadinejad's Ground Zero Ploy

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Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the parliament on Iran's fourth development plans in Tehran.

The shrill reaction to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's request to visit Ground Zero is playing right into the Iranian President's hands. He faces growing unpopularity at home, thanks to a dire economy and mounting religious and cultural repression. But his power base is made up mainly of Iranians who participated in the 1979 revolution, among whom the loathing of the U.S. runs very deep. Nothing energizes them more than the sight of their leader being excoriated by the hated Americans.

There's little reason to believe the Iranian President really wanted to visit the site of the World Trade Center's twin towers. He didn't ask to see it on his previous trip to New York. When TIME interviewed him last year, we asked if he had visited the site. His response: "It was not necessary. It was widely covered in the media." And he once wrote a letter to President Bush, suggesting that the attacks on the towers were the work of unspecified "intelligence and security services."

So why would he ask to visit now? It is a transparently political stunt, aimed at the audience back home.

Ahmadinejad's request to visit Ground Zero was turned down by New York police on security grounds and because of construction at the site. (The Iranian leader arrives in New York on Sunday and will give a speech at the General Assembly on Tuesday — the same day President Bush is scheduled to speak.) But when word of his request leaked out, it was met with just the sort of outrage Ahmadinejad must have anticipated.

New York's tabloids hyperventilated. The Daily News shrieked: "If you even think of setting foot near Ground Zero, you can GO TO HELL!" The paper went on to describe Ahmadinejad as a "madman," and "an enemy of the U.S. in particular and of civilization in general."

American politicians — especially presidential hopefuls looking to score easy points — lit into the Iranian President with a candor they rarely show on the campaign trail. "It is unacceptable for [Ahmadinejad], who refuses to renounce and end his own country's support of terrorism, to visit the site of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in our nation's history," said Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani — who was New York City mayor at the time of the attacks — thundered: "This is a man who has made threats against America and Israel, is harboring bin Laden's son and other al-Qaeda leaders, is shipping arms to Iraqi insurgents and is pursuing the development of nuclear weapons." His fellow Republican candidate Mitt Romney described Ahmadinejad's request as "shockingly audacious."

The Iranian President can only benefit from this sort of demonization. It allows him to tell his fellow Iranians: "Look, I tried to be a nice guy, I wanted to lay a wreath on Ground Zero, but these Americans don't appreciate our compassion." And to the conservative mullahs and hard-liners of Iran, Ahmadinejad's stock rises when Americans put him down.