But what really keeps leaders in Washington, Europe, and the Middle East awake at night is Ahmadinejad's (pronounced ah-ma-DEE-nay-jahd) hard-line stance on Iran's nuclear program, which many suspect is secretly a push to acquire nuclear weapons.
In January, Iran resumed its research on uranium enrichment in defiance of a 14-month-old agreement with European leaders to suspend most of its nuclear work. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful domestic purposes, such as electric power generation, but it has refused to let international examiners inspect some of its well-hidden research facilities, as required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. "You cannot prevent Iran's progress," Ahmadinejad said last month.
The U.S., Britain, and other countries suspect Iran is at least three to five years away from being able to enrich enough uranium and build a bomb. If Iran were to acquire a nuclear arsenal, it could threaten Israel (which is believed to have nuclear weapons, though it has never officially acknowledged it) and Europe, and further destabilize the entire Middle East.
The Bush administration and its allies in Europe want the U.N. Security Council to consider imposing economic sanctions on Iran to force it to cooperate. But Ahmadinejad has dismissed the threat and vowed that Iranian nuclear engineers will press ahead.
At home, Ahmadinejad is reviled as a religious extremist by moderate Iranianshe has already issued a ban on Western music. But he also has what appears to be a growing base of support, especially from religious conservatives and the poor. He has traveled the country, promising economic aid, wearing simple clothing, and using the religion-infused language that won him many votes.
"He is leading a simple life," says Zabiollah Baderlou, 18, a bakery worker in Tehran. "He is making these efforts for the people, and all he wants is Iran's dignity."
Ahmadinejad was the largely unknown mayor of Tehran when he ran for office last June, a blacksmith's son who had served in the hard-line Basiji militiaa volunteer Islamic vigilante forceand the Revolutionary Guard.
In part, his surprise victory was attributed to the disgust many Iranians have felt about a government widely viewed as corrupt and uncaring, and at the failure of a reform movement to make significant strides in recent years. The presidency has limited powers, since the government is controlled by unelected mullahs (Islamic religious leaders) who have veto power over laws passed by Iran's legislature.
Ahmadinejad is doing exactly what he promised in the election, resurrecting the priorities of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, and chastising the West at every turn. (After his election, he vehemently denied accusations that he was one of the student radicals who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, holding dozens of Americans hostage for more than a year.) He calls the U.S. the "World Oppressor" in place of "the Great Satan," the epithet popularized by Khomeini.
Iran's nuclear ambitions present a dicey problem for President Bush, who in 2002 called Iran part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Bush announced a policy of pre-emptive military action to prevent threats before they materialize. The question is, how does that policy apply to Iran?
The irony to some observers is that although Iraq turned out not to possess the weapons of mass destruction that Bush accused them of hiding, there is a much greater consensus around the world that Iran is on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power.
However, any sort of military action by the U.S. or the U.N., while viewed as unlikely, could have the effect of rallying even moderate Iranians around Ahmadinejad. That would further weaken the reform movement in Iran that has long sought greater democracy, more social freedoms, and better ties to the Westall of which makes President Bush's dilemma that much trickier.