Monday, January 02, 2006

Fundamentals of Politics Challenge Iranian Leader

Nahid Siamdoust, The Los Angeles Times:
On the surface, little seems to have changed in the Iranian capital since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August. The streets still bustle with traffic. Women's Islamic dress is no more conservative, though it is no longer drenched in the summer's hot color, pink. In cafes, boys and girls sip the latest coffee concoctions and listen to Niaz, an Iranian band, and even Pink Floyd.

But underneath the veneer of normality, Iranians are watching as their controversial president settles into office — and their country hardens under his fundamentalist leadership. READ MORE

In his first five months in power, Ahmadinejad has carved an image of himself as a religious extremist and political radical. To many in the most conservative circles, this is a welcome change. But in Tehran's usually hectic bazaar, merchants complain of stagnant business. Inside homes, families wonder whether they need to brace for stiffer economic sanctions or international isolation.

To both insiders and outsiders, the political face of Iran seems to have drastically changed. Gone is the well-groomed, rosy-cheeked reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who coined the phrase "dialogue of civilizations." Ahmadinejad, draped in a Palestinian kaffiyeh, the scarf that he has appropriated to signal his struggle against perceived injustice, has stirred international ire with virulent anti-Israel rhetoric. Meanwhile, his habit of immersing politics in sacred Islamic tradition has chafed critics within Iran.

"He is not qualified to be the president of Iran. His words so far leave no doubt to his inadequacy to the job," fretted a 38-year-old graphic designer who identified herself only as Shahnaz B., expressing a sentiment common among Iranians these days. "The U.S. and Israel will only take advantage of his stances to further their own agendas on Iran."

At home, Ahmadinejad is known for his populist ways. As mayor of Tehran, he shunned the large office accorded him in favor of a smaller side office and remained in his small apartment in a working-class neighborhood instead of taking the luxurious mayoral house on the capital's north side.

One of his popular programs involved the distribution of funds for young couples to get married. Driving around in his 1977 Peugeot, he maintained the image of a humble man — the main selling point of his presidential campaign, in which he promised to redistribute oil wealth.

Upon his election, Ahmadinejad visited the shrine of his idol, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In choosing his ministers and governors, he has relied on officials with backgrounds in the Revolutionary Guard as well as the intelligence apparatus.

An ideological transition appears to be underway. The director of Tehran University, for example, was replaced by a cleric. Western music was banned on state television and radio.

Internationally, Ahmadinejad's reputation is quickly growing as a result of his vitriol. The Iranian president has called the Holocaust a myth and proposed that Israel be moved to Europe, the U.S. or Canada. On Sunday, he accused European nations of seeking to complete the genocide by establishing the "Jewish camp" of Israel in the midst of Muslim countries, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

"I'm happy to see the Western world ache," said Amir-Reza Vaezi-Ashtiani, a city councilman who worked with the president, "because that means the president is putting his finger on the right spot. They know the Holocaust is a scenario spun in their own hands."

The president's speeches, the councilman said, may earn the wrath of "the five Western countries that believe they are the world, but these words will garner much more support in other parts of the world. God is with Ahmadinejad."

Analysts have read varied intentions in the president's words. Western countries uniformly condemned the remarks, and Israel and the United States urged the three European nations negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program — France, Germany and Britain — to take his statements into consideration.

"We get a sense that he enjoys the attention he has been getting, but it certainly makes our work harder on the nuclear issue," said an Iran-based diplomat from one of the European countries. "We have fewer reasons to give Iran the benefit of the doubt that it is in fact pursuing a peaceful program, which is what it claims."

Moderate Tehran legislator Mahmoud Mohammadi said the president has many supporters in parliament "who feel that no one protects the rights of Palestinians, and the West unashamedly supports Israel and its terrors."

Mohammadi, the deputy head of the national security and foreign affairs committee, said Ahmadinejad's style distinguishes him because "he believes for the defense of justice, one must talk in simple and straight language and abstain from diplomatic lingo."

But even in Iran's mostly conservative parliament, the hard-line president has found himself unable to get traction. In a first for the Islamic Republic, lawmakers turned down four of the ministers Ahmadinejad asked them to approve. It took him three months and four candidates to seat an oil minister. Some reformist legislators even agitated for hearings on the president's "lack of political competence."

"The representatives did not believe the president was taking advantage of the superb human resources that we have for filling government posts," Mohammadi said, "and was instead more interested in bringing people from a very narrow circle of ideologically like-minded supporters."

With Iran's reformists sidelined, the political landscape under Ahmadinejad is marked by strife between the right and the extreme right.

"The faction in power is a radical one," said political analyst Said Laylaz, trying to explain the differences among conservatives. "The radicals don't see eye to eye with the traditional right. Ahmadinejad's radicals put revolution first, the traditionalists put Islam first."

Ahmadinejad is regarded as "more revolutionary than the revolutionary fathers," and some analysts believe this could ruffle feathers at the top. In October, top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei increased the powers of the Expediency Council, which resolves conflicts among government branches. It is headed by old-guard revolutionary Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom Ahmadinejad bested in the election, and some saw it as an attempt to keep the new president's powers in check.

"The way the new government talks and acts reminds us of the early days of the revolution," said Mohammed Atrianfar, director of the daily newspaper Shargh and a supporter of Rafsanjani. "The new government doesn't have a right to put everything into question, and the elders of the revolution like Rafsanjani and Khamenei have put him in his place…. He has no right to slander the past."

The president's religious talk has gotten him into trouble. Hosting his first Cabinet meeting in Iran's holy city of Mashhad, Ahmadinejad announced the formation of a $1.3-billion Imam Reza Love Fund, which would allocate government oil revenue to housing aid and marriage loans. It was just the sort of thing many economically disadvantaged voters had in mind when they ticked Ahmadinejad's name on the ballot.

But the bill ran into trouble in the legislature and could take months to move forward. Aside from economic complaints, several legislators insisted that a government fund should not be named after one of Shiite Islam's sacred imams.

Even more controversial is Ahmadinejad's repeated invocation of Imam Mahdi, known as the Savior of Times. According to Shiite tradition, Imam Mahdi will appear on Judgment Day to herald a truly just government.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in September, Ahmadinejad surprised his international audience by asking the "mighty Lord" to hasten the emergence of "the promised one," the one who "will fill this world with justice and peace."

That speech sparked controversy at home after bootleg videos circulated in Tehran showing the president speaking with a ranking cleric, Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli, about his United Nations appearance. Ahmadinejad said an aide told him a light had surrounded him when he took the podium. And he said he too felt that "all of a sudden, the atmosphere changed, and for 27 to 28 minutes, the leaders did not blink."

For some here, Ahmadinejad's words bordered on sacrilege. Shiite religious texts outlaw such claims to revelations, said Ali Abtahi, a cleric and former deputy to Khatami.

"To make such claims threatens the country as well as our religion," said Abtahi, director of Dialogue of Religions, a nongovernmental organization in Tehran, and the author of a widely read blog. "To connect a mortal's legitimacy to that of a sacred Shiite figure is harmful to people's deep religious beliefs. What if that person fails like everyone else?"

Condemnation came from all corners, leading a government spokesman to try to refute the video's authenticity during a news conference, saying, "It is not the president's tactic to make use of the heavenly sphere for the justification of his governmental duties."

Mostafa Tajzadeh, a strategist with Iran's biggest reformist party, Mosharekat, sees the government's retraction as a victory for civil society. "There would have been no reason to deny the tape's authenticity if it hadn't been for adverse public opinion," Tajzadeh said.

Some Iranians are heartened by the fundamentalist president's rise. At the Bright Future Institute in the religious city of Qom, about 50 people work toward hastening Imam Mahdi's appearance through research and producing publications. Institute Director Masoud PourSeyed-Aghai said, "The culture of anticipation" is Shiite Muslims' "true nuclear energy" and "the Ahmadinejad government is the best in facilitating the coming of the savior."

Pour-Seyed-Aghai believes the tape of Ahmadinejad's meeting with Javadi-Amoli was distributed as part of a smear campaign but wouldn't be surprised if "the president's speeches were directed by Imam Mahdi himself."

Some think the new leadership is having the indirect effect of encouraging Iranians to rethink their system. Newspapers have been filled with debates on political parties and democracy in recent weeks.

Even a deputy of the ultraconservative Islamic Coalition Party was quoted recently as saying, "We can't insist on the rightfulness of Islam and not seek republicanism."

"The most important result of the election is that people now understand that if they don't participate, they will lose," says Tajzadeh, the reformist strategist. "Though we lost the election, we feel that we have won in the long run. People have understood that they cannot opt out."