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November 1, 2014

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Scholarly diplomat’s mind, with a Mideast focus

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might have been in New York City this week to speak to students at Columbia University and to address delegates at the United Nations, but the real audience he was trying to reach was in the Middle East.

That's the assessment of Mideast authority Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

"His purpose was clear - to promote himself not to an American audience but to the Arab and Muslim world as the defender of Iran and the defier of the United States," Indyk said. "He absolutely succeeded. His aggravation of Americans is instrumental to his purpose of being defiant."

Indyk, who also served as President Bill Clinton's principal adviser on the Middle East in the early 1990s, will be the guest speaker at the United Jewish Community/Jewish Federation of Las Vegas donor appreciation meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Bellagio.

Indyk likened Ahmadinejad's hard-hitting rhetoric - the Iranian leader denies, for example, that the Holocaust occurred - to that of Gamel Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970.

Nasser long threatened to attack Israel and called on the rest of the Arab world to join him. That strategy, however, backfired and led to Nasser's humiliation at Israel's hands in the Six Day War in 1967.

"I don't think Ahmadinejad's rhetoric on its own will lead to war, but to the extent that the rhetoric builds his popularity in the Arab world , it can indeed lay the groundwork for unintended consequences," Indyk said. "I do not believe Nasser wanted to go to war in 1967 , but his actions eventually led to that conclusion."

Indyk said Columbia University President Lee Bollinger erred by delivering a highly critical introduction of his controversial speaker. Bollinger said Ahmadinejad has a "fanatical mind-set" and called him "astoundingly under-educated" and "a petty and cruel dictator."

"They were completely counterproductive," Indyk said of Bollinger's comments. "He should have thought about Ahmadinejad's audience. Hospitality toward a guest matters greatly in the Arab and Muslim world. The insult to Ahmadinejad only helped Ahmadinejad in his purpose."

However, Ahmadinejad himself may have stumbled strategically by positioning Iraq as being a major threat to stability in the region, Indyk said.

"The Iranians are acting in a way that is so threatening to Sunni Arab leaders and others that they may come to see Israel as part of the solution rather than part of the problem," Indyk said. More moderate Arabs may find it in their best interest to forge a peaceful coexistence with Israel, he added.

Jewish Federation officials said they sought Indyk as their speaker because of his extensive knowledge of the Middle East and his candid assessment of the violence and turmoil in the region.

Jewish Federation Board Chairman Danny Greenspun called Indyk "one of the most prestigious and scholarly diplomatic minds in the world today." The Greenspun family owns the Las Vegas Sun.

Indyk was the first Jewish American appointed U.S. ambassador to Israel. He served from 1995 to 1997, during which time Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and from 2000 to 2001.

He is now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. There, Indyk continues to play a major role in championing efforts for peace between Israel and a stable Palestinian government.

Indyk said it is time for the United States to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The ruling Iranian-backed Shiite Arabs likely will battle the minority Sunni Arabs for at least another decade before there is hope of a peaceful resolution in Iraq, he said.

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