Envoy's sole 'wounds' Ahmadinejad's soul
Swedish ambassador inadvertently offends Iranian president by crossing his legs during meeting, not knowing that in Islam, shoes are considered impure
Swedish Ambassador to Iran Peter Tejler nearly caused a diplomatic incident between Stockholm and Tehran last week, when he presented his letter of accreditation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His offense: Exposing the sole of his shoe.
The event, which is a routine diplomatic procedure, was proceeding according to plan until, as the two were seated, the ambassador decided to cross his legs. The act seemed to have insulted the Iranian president, causing him to flash the ambassador a retaliatory leg-crossing himself.
The incident did not go unnoticed by local media. "The ambassador's actions are undiplomatic and impolite," an Iranian website reported, adding that "Such behavior deviates from diplomatic and international norms."
The 'incident'- Ahmadinejad, Tejler, and the sole
The incident occurred last Monday at the Iranian president's Teheran office, when the Swedish ambassador placed his right leg over his left, revealing the sole of his right shoe.
In Islam, shoes, and especially their soles, are considered impure and even profane. Exposing one's shoes or their soles before a high-ranking official is considered a great insult.
A shoe for a shoe
The ambassador's body language, however, seems to indicate that his sitting position was a result of his interest in the conversation and his desire to get closer to the president.
Ahmadinejad's reaction – crossing his legs in the opposite direction – seems to express a feeling of disinterest and discomfort or, and as some Iranian media outlets suggest, even affront, vis-à-vis his interlocutor.
To understand the shoe's role in Islamic society one might recall the wave of past shoe-throwing incidents at world leaders.
The trend started in 2008 by an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoe at then-US President George W. Bush, while he was giving a speech during a visit of Iraq. In the following years other leaders have had shoes pelted at them, among them Ahmadinejad. Shoes were also used to batter pictures of Arab leaders during the Arab Spring and at Israelis in Jordan.