Iranian's Oratory Reflects Devotion to '79 Revolution
Nazila Fathi and Michael Slackman, The New York Times:
The morning after the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected president in June, he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of the father of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an act that appears to have foreshadowed exactly how the president-elect planned to lead his country.
"The path of the imam is the absolute path of the Islamic republic," Mr. Ahmadinejad said then. "He was the founder of the revolution. He is the reference of the revolution." READ MORE
And so, it should not have been a surprise when he quoted Ayatollah Khomeini and called for Israel "to be wiped off the map," then labeled the Holocaust a legend that was the fault of Europeans, and said Israel should therefore be moved to Europe.
Since taking office, Mr. Ahmadinejad has had numerous problems, failing to deliver on his message of economic populism and to solidify the support of the conservatives who elected him, and of the clerics who supported him.
But he has worked aggressively to roll the clock back to the early days of the revolution. He has moved to erase the changes, especially in foreign policy, which evolved over eight years of rule by President Mohammad Khatami, seeking national unity through international isolation.
It is in this context, political analysts said, that the new president's comments about Israel should be viewed. The remarks coincided with the firing of 40 ambassadors and diplomats, most of whom supported some degree of improved ties with the West; with the removal of reform-minded provincial governors, and with the replacement of pragmatists on Iran's nuclear negotiating team with members who hewed to the president's thinking.
But it was the comments on Israel that set off the greatest outcry abroad, in part because they came as American and European suspicions deepened that Iran was trying to build nuclear weapons. While the Iranians have insisted that their nuclear program is geared toward energy, not weapons, there have been some signals that Iran feels it would be easier to move ahead if it were an international pariah, like North Korea. And what better way to achieve pariah status in the West than to call for the obliteration of Israel?
Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, implicitly supported the North Korean model at a news conference in September when he said the international community should learn a lesson from its approach in that conflict. "What was the result of such tough policies?" he asked. "After two years they ended up accepting its program, so you should accept ours right now."
The anti-Israeli oratory also has roots in the president's domestic standing.
Again, it is useful to examine Ayatollah Khomeini's approach. When he took over after the shah fell in 1979, the nation did not unify right away behind clerical rule. It was only after Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, attacked in 1980 that real unity occurred.
Some Iranian analysts say that by increasing the world's hostility, Mr. Ahmadinejad is hoping to reproduce that sense of internal unity.
Iranian analysts say he is also trying to satisfy, and perhaps distract, supporters who have begun to feel disappointed that he has not provided financial relief. Throughout his campaign, Mr. Ahmadinejad promised to try to redistribute the nation's vast oil wealth.
"His comments are more for domestic consumption," said Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian political analyst. "He wants to control the domestic situation through isolating Iran. Then he can suppress the voices inside the country and control the situation."
The harsh oratory has emerged as a bit of a surprise because Iranians have grown accustomed to more diplomatic language.
"The issue of Palestine and Israel has been one of the pillars of the revolution," said Mohammad Atrianfar, director of the daily newspaper Shargh and a close supporter of a former president, Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost the election to Mr. Ahmadinejad. "If anyone criticizes what he has said, it will sound like questioning one of the major issues of the early days of the revolution. However, Iran has been able to adopt a political language after 25 years which is acceptable to the international community's diplomatic language, without quitting those values."
Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected primarily because he was viewed as anti-establishment, a layman and a successful administrator who helped improve the workings of sprawling Tehran, home to some 20 million people. But it was also his call for justice - primarily economic justice - that resonated with a population angered by a perception that it had been denied the benefit of the oil wealth.
But even among his supporters, there was concern that the new president had no foreign policy background or experience navigating the larger political shoals of Iran. Since taking office, he has failed to win the support - or admiration - of those who opposed him.
With Iran facing a raft of problems - widespread unemployment, collapse of rural life as more people head to the cities, and a general sense of drift among the young - Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments on Israel have drawn little domestic attention.
"Inside the country we see two different reactions," said Mahmoud Shamsolvaezin, a journalist and political analyst. "Society and those who voted for him do not care much about his political beliefs and are waiting for his economic promises to be delivered. On the other hand, we see a clear indifference among the political elite. It seems that they do not care about what he says unless he is jeopardizing our national security."
There has been little discussion in Iran of the new president's actions, in part because he appears to retain the support of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But many people - including supporters of the president - have tried to soften the edges of what he has said.
"I don't think there is anything new in what Ahmadinejad said," said Mosayeb Naimi, editor of Al Vefagh/Al Wefaq, an Arabic daily published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. "He expressed his view on historical events. The Holocaust is a historical event; either it took place or it didn't. If it didn't take place, then it is a fabrication. If it did, it wasn't the Arabs who did it; it was the Europeans. Why then should the Palestinians pay the price of what the Europeans did against the Jews?"