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Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Desperately Seeking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

His call for the destruction of Israel was the oft-quoted moment that propelled him into the global spotlight. He led up to it with a negatively received UN speech hot on the heels of the US’s international campaign of vilification against him based on his alleged role in taking US diplomats hostage in 1979. So who is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this most enigmatic of Iranian presidents, and why is everyone out to get him?

A talented football player and straight-A student, Ahmadinejad sailed through educational and professional hierarchies with great ease. People who know him speak admiringly of his “indefatigable habits of work” and “financial incorruptibility.” A modest man, he inhabited an unpretentious house in a lower-middle-class area of Tehran and drove a Paykan, Iran’s cheapest, mass-produced car. So far, this description sounds nothing like the Western media’s new demon. Describing him, however, as a radical fundamentalist who was such a fervent supporter of gender segregation (in accordance with Islamic religious norms) during his time as mayor of Tehran that he proposed separate male and female graveyards, Western critics have pointed to his military background as proof that he is a fearless religious nationalist. For their part, upper-class Iranians sneer at his common looks and ordinary-Joe appearance, even as Ahmadinejad himself stresses it to appeal to large segments of the population.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in between. Ahmadinejad is arguably the most controversial Iranian leader since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself was greeted upon his arrival in Iran by delirious millions one February morning in 1979. Khomeini, of course, went on to overthrow the second and last occupant of the Peacock Throne and institute an Islamic republic that has had only two other non-clerical presidents in 26 years, none of whom remained in their posts to the end of their terms. Abolhassan Bani Sadr was impeached while Mohammad Ali Rajai was assassinated in a terrorist attack. For a country that is not short on flamboyant politicians, it is surprising that Iran’s most controversial one so far is unassuming, colorless, deeply ordinary, and—by common agreement—lacking in the charisma of his dashing predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. His election in June this year came like a thunderbolt in a summer sky, shocking foreigners and locals alike and dividing Iranian society along previously obscured class lines.

If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—still teetering in the presidential hot-seat five months after being elected in an unprecedented two-round contest—is already such a controversial leader outside Iran, his standing is not all that better at home. Recently, following the Iranian parliament’s rejection of his third nominee for the crucial position of oil minister, Ahmadinejad found himself embroiled in the most serious political crisis of his brief presidency. Having already angered and unsettled the clerical establishment by appearing as a younger upstart who pledged to “cut the hands off” the corrupt officials exploiting Iran’s wealth, the 49-year-old former Revolutionary Guard appeared to be sailing perilously close to the wind. The fact that several reformist MPs voted for Ahmadinejad’s choice while the conservatives opted to reject him en masse sent a signal to the new president that he should consult more with others and take fewer decisions unilaterally.

Ever since assuming the presidency, Ahmadinejad has seen his authority erode with every verbal slip and rhetorical flourish he makes. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—the ultimate, and unelected, power in the Islamic republic—has rolled back Ahmadinejad’s remit as the neophyte president grapples with the tough transition from ideologue to head of government. By late October, Ahmadinejad was already well on his transformation to being a “domestic president” as foreign affairs were reportedly transferred to Hashemi Rafsanjani, his arch-rival and the man Ahmadinejad came from behind to defeat in the presidential elections. Still, it is thought that Ahmadinejad has some time to change before the country’s clerical elite makes any move against him.

“They are intending to give Ahmadinejad a year to prove himself and if he hasn’t settled down by then, then they will decide whether to remove him or not,” said an Iranian analyst to me. “But for the time being, impeaching him and removing him would reflect very badly on and destabilize the Islamic republic.” In fact, it was exactly in order to protect the republic that Ahmadinejad’s rival, Hashemi Rafsanjani, did not step down immediately after the presidential elections went to an unprecedented second round. Despite the opinion of a number of his colleagues, and classified internal government polls, that he was destined to lose, Rafsanjani resolved to become a sacrificial lamb and stick out the election in order to preserve the appearance of a normal contest at a time when Washington was accusing Tehran of being insufficiently democratic. He is now garnering his reward for his selfless act by being apportioned some foreign-policy duties and a greater share of decisionmaking in negotiations with the EU-3 (Britain, Germany, and France) on Iran’s nuclear program. A meeting with Rafsanjani remains a must-have appointment on any foreign official’s itinerary. Ordinary people look at each other knowingly when his name is mentioned, implying that he remains the real power behind the throne.

Despite not being a cleric, critics have identified Ahmadinejad’s intense religiosity as his defining and potentially most unquantifiable trait. His apparent belief in the imminent return of the Mahdi, the twelfth and “missing imam” who entered occultation in 941 CE and who the Shi’a believe will return to rule before Judgment Day, has prompted concern among Iran-watchers, who discern a sharp swing away from the pragmatism of former president Khatami. Ahmadinejad has already donated $14 million to the holy well of Jamkaran in Isfahan, at the bottom of which many Shi’a believe the imam is hiding and around which a magnificent mosque has been constructed. Ahmadinejad is said to have required members of his cabinet to sign a formal declaration of loyalty to the twelfth imam that was subsequently dropped into the well, fluttering down to rest on top of several thousand prior petitions and letters already lying there from worshippers over the centuries.

But Ahmadinejad also comes from a military background, a sign of the times in a country that fought invading neighbor Iraq to a bloody standstill for nine years. That nine-year war, in which over a million men died on both sides, intellectually molded an entire generation and laid the seeds of today’s militarization. While many Iranians lost faith in their Islamic revolution as they saw its leadership manipulate the war, artificially extending it in order to consolidate power at home, others identified ever more closely with the Islamic republic. Ahmadinejad belongs to the latter group.

So, while Ahmadinejad may be only the third non-clerical president of the republic since its inception, he is just as pious, if not more so, than his predecessors. His first action following his electoral victory was to visit Behesht-e Zahra, a sprawling cemetery in south Tehran that is the world’s largest, to pay his respects at Khomeini’s shrine. Then, obviously sending a pious message to the country, he convened his first cabinet meeting in the holy city of Mashhad, site of the tomb of the fourth Shi’a imam (and the only one buried on Iranian soil). It must have come as a shock to him, therefore, and the first intimation of trouble, when, as reports suggest, he was bluntly snubbed in his request for an audience with the powerful Ayatollah Tabasi, who runs the Imam Reza Foundation, one of the largest in the country. In a humiliating rebuff, Ahmadinejad is said to have been booked to meet with the ayatollah’s chief-of-staff.

This and other alleged snubs of Ahmadinejad or complaints about him by senior religious figures have been attributed to a multitude of possible conflicts. Some believe that it is nothing more than that the non-clerical, working-class Ahmadinejad is rubbing the elite priesthood the wrong way. Others suggest that the ayatollahs are not happy with Ahmadinejad’s unstinting allegiance to Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, a hardline religious figure who is making something of a comeback since being sidelined by the Khatami administration. But the most likely scenario is that Ahmadinejad’s systematic purge of the foreign service, provincial governorships, and key economic posts—and his appointment of mostly former Revolutionary Guard comrades to those offices—is angering those first-generation clerics who see significant elements of their power base being eroded. Further criticism is prompted by the fact that, whereas the time has probably come for the second revolutionary generation to start taking over, Ahmadinejad’s abrupt manner in effecting this transition is ruffling too many feathers.

Moreover, Iranian lawmakers and the press have been harsh in their criticism of Ahmadinejad’s appointees, whom they describe as people of limited competence who have been selected on the basis of connections and a shared background with the president. As the head of Iran’s energy commission, Kamal Daneshyar, said recently, Ahmadinejad’s criteria for nominating ministers is “membership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Council or the Ministry of Information, studies at the ‘Ilm-o-San’at University [where Ahmadinejad taught], membership of the Tehran city council or being related to certain conservative politicians. The only thing…not important [is] competence.”

On the morning after Ahmadinejad trounced Rafsanjani, who had twice previously been elected president of the country, Tehran was eerily quiet. With tension running high, both sides urged their supporters to avoid celebrations or troublemaking. Commentators spoke of the end of the reformist era and a return to the radical early days of the Islamic revolution, Khomeini-style. On the empty streets, a few of Iran’s signature Paykan taxis cruised aimlessly for passengers. Ahmadinejad had ridden to victory on a wave of popular and official support, promising a return to original revolutionary values that were sorely needed, his speeches implied, in a country grown soft on corruption and Western goods. What Iran needed, 16 years after the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq war, was to be transformed into an Islamic Sparta, its youth pummeled into shape and reminded of the Islamic ideals that once made their country great.

Most people agree that the new president’s most tangible contribution to Iranian political life—beyond slamming the door on reform and heralding the rise of a military bourgeoisie—has been the way in which he has brought into the electoral process an entire social class of pious, apolitical people whose presence continues to completely fail to register on the Western media radar. On the afternoon of the first ballot, chador-covered women swirled through the front gate of the Imamzadeh Saleh, a pilgrimage site in Tehran’s Tajrish district, and toward the electoral center set up right in front of the mosque. Two women who had just voted were walking away, discussing their choice. Laughing, one turned to her friend and confessed to having voted for Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf “because he’s so handsome.” Qalibaf, a conservative who failed even to make the second round, has now taken Ahmadinejad’s former position as mayor of Tehran. While that particular woman might have been bewitched by Qalibaf’s professional ad campaign, a great part of Ahmadinejad’s critical support came from the local Bassij militias and from those pious folk for whom voting was just an afterthought on the way home after Friday prayers. The latter’s choices very often tended to match the suggestions of their imams, and anecdotal evidence points to many prayer leaders switching their support from Qalibaf to Ahmadinejad at the last moment.

These largely poverty-stricken urban and rural masses, whose religiosity would likely have stopped them from participating in elections before, appear to have voted overwhelmingly for Ahmadinejad. He appealed to them through his low-profile campaigning, divorced from the glitter that other electoral hopefuls employed. Describing himself as a mardomyar (man of the people) and the Iranian nation’s “little servant and street-sweeper” boosted his popularity and tied in with his proven track record as mayor of Tehran. Even as Iran’s Westernized bourgeoisie sneered at Ahmadinejad’s looks and comportment, they miscalculated the emergence of a new, populist idol filling the widening class void. Since his election, Ahmadinejad has donated several expensive Persian carpets in the presidential office to the Carpet Museum, and has refused to receive dignitaries in the shah’s opulent former palaces, preferring to see them instead in his old offices in smog-choked, downtown Tehran. Last week, he reportedly refused to fly a VIP jet, which cost $59 million and had been specially set aside for foreign trips, and instructed his transport minister to use it “for public, commercial purposes.”

It is touches such as these that have elevated Ahmadinejad into a populist icon. An Iranian anti-hero, his very ordinariness gives hope to millions of common people disillusioned by the exploitation inflicted upon them first by the shah’s secular petro-elites and then by a traditionalist class of clerics who failed to turn their slogans of Islamic solidarity and Muslim socialism into action. Working-class Iranians who saw their parents exploited by the shah’s contemptuous Westernization, and then experienced only mildly better treatment under the subsequent religious regime, turned to Ahmadinejad as an alternative both to President Khatami’s shy liberalism and the religiously robed capitalism of Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The pitched battle between an entrenched and largely corrupt elite, on the one hand, and a surging neoconservative class of purists, on the other, has unsettling echoes from Ryszard Kapuscinski‘s slim but insightful book, Shah of Shahs, which was published in 1982. As he witnessed the birth pangs of the Islamic republic, Kapuscinski observed popular committees being set up and staffed by barely literate but fervent revolutionaries. He noted that:

the newcomers invariably have more ambition than skill. As a result, with each upheaval, the country goes back to the starting point because the victorious new generation has to learn all over again what it cost the defeated generation so much toil to master. And does this mean that the defeated ones were efficient and wise? Not at all—the preceding generation sprang from the same roots as those who took its place.

A generation later, Kapuscinski’s comment has lost none of its topicality. When he writes that, “a young, energetic workforce that knows little (they are often illiterate) but possesses great ambition and is ready to fight for anything” moves to the city, where its members “find an entrenched establishment…learn the ropes, settle in a bit, occupy starting positions, and go on the attack,” he could be reporting today from the slums of south Tehran or the urban accretions of a half-dozen major cities peppering the great Iranian plateau. “In the struggle, they make use of whatever ideology they have brought from the village,” writes Kapuscinski, and concludes:

Usually this is religion. Since they are the ones who are truly determined to get ahead, they often succeed. Then authority passes into their hands. But what are they to do with it? They begin to debate and they enter the spellbound circle of helplessness. The nation stays alive somehow, as it must, and in the meantime they live better and better. For a while, they are satisfied. Their successors are now roaming the vast plains, grazing camels, tending sheep but they too will grow up, move to the city, and start struggling.

A generation later, little has changed. Two months ago, a once-jailed regime dissident currently lying low met up with a journalist in one of Tehran’s parks to talk about the differences between today and 1979. A former communist whose face still shines with the belief in social justice, he pointed out that the difference between 1979 and today is that the new government is misjudging the public mood, which has no appetite for further conflict and upheaval. What’s more, he said, these are not the right people to effect change. “They know that in some cases they can show their teeth,” he said. “But they have one weakness, which is their wealth. They’re no longer revolutionaries; they’re nouveaux riches.”

For the community of Western analysts, diplomats, and journalists whose task it is to observe the new Iranian president, the emergence of a new elite reputedly inspired by a mysterious, hardline ayatollah is unsettling. They seek to penetrate a mentality and social background to which they have no direct access, and in which their very presence would be cause of intense suspicion. Foreign diplomats in Iran who make the effort to visit Qom, the spiritual home of the Islamic republic, are subject to restrictions. Meetings with senior clergy are encumbered by protocol and highly structured, inflexible settings. Iranian interpreters, paradoxically, add an extra layer of inaccessibility.

Aside from homing in on Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s primary inspiration, analysts have also identified Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh as the president’s closest adviser. An intelligence and foreign ministry veteran, Samareh is said to have met Ahmadinejad in western Iran during the war, when both men served in the Revolutionary Guard. Subsequently, he became a confidante of Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi and entered the foreign ministry through his recommendation. Today, Samareh keeps a portrait of his mentor on his desk, rather than the traditional pictures of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei (the Islamic republic’s first and succeeding supreme leaders). He is said to sit in on all presidential meetings and has the power to dismiss ambassadors and ministers with just a word. Having devoted his entire life to the Islamic republic, his professional background stretches from the Revolutionary Guard to the intelligence services, and has always involved extremist, right-wing circles. (He was not only director of the foreign ministry’s placement office, which checked the backgrounds of diplomats headed to Iranian missions abroad, but he also taught the “psychology of infidels” during his time at the ministry.) On foreign trips, Samareh refrains from going to hotels or even guesthouses of Iranian embassies, but prefers to sleep in a mosque, guarded by a heavy security detail. He is said to have done this often in London and Hamburg. When at his office in Tehran, he is said to go with Ahmadinejad to the mosque at the presidential palace every day after work, and pray with the president. His strong support for the Jamkaran well finds an echo in the recent financial donation made to upgrade the site.

In 1997, with newly elected president Mohammad Khatami spearheading a rollback of hardliners, Ahmadinejad taught engineering classes at ‘Ilm-o-San’at University, sporting a Palestinian kaffiyeh around the campus. While kaffiyehs are standard symbols for the pro-Palestinian cause in the West, in Iran they also represent religiosity and a commitment to the hard-right wing of the Islamic republic. To have worn one in the relative liberalism of a university environment at the peak of the reformist wave indicated single-minded opposition to what the Khatami era represented.

Today, Khatami is banished and Ahmadinejad in power. It is a sign of the times that Rafsanjani, bête noire of the reformists and suspected of sanctioning the assassinations of intellectuals in the mid-1990s, appears to be the sole voice of moderation on the political landscape. Last summer, shortly before firing 40 ambassadors in what was possibly the largest purge of the foreign service since the shah’s fall, Ahmadinejad addressed an annual gathering of Iranian envoys from around the world. Coming face to face with many of them for the first time, he is reported to have told them, “We have had a revolution in this country. Some people among us seem to have trouble understanding that fact!”

Iason Athanasiadis is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer currently based in Tehran. He has worked for a range of media, including the Financial Times, the BBC, and al-Jazeera.
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