A New Face in Iran Resurrects an Old Defiance
Michael Slackman, The New York Times:
Since he took office as Iran's president nearly six months ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been the subject of many jokes sent via text messages on cellphones across Iran. He has been spoofed on television and radio, here and abroad, as a bumpkin and a bigot for declaring the Holocaust a "myth" and causing international outrage over Iran's nuclear program.Surprisingly, the New York Times is one of few major news sources to remind its readers the Iranian regime not only wants to destroy Israel., but the US as well.
One joke has the president combing his hair in a mirror and saying, "O.K., male lice to the left, female lice to the right," ridiculing him as a religious extremist who wants to separate the sexes in public places.
But that is just part of the picture. READ MORE
Beyond the prosperous tree-lined hills of northern Tehran, Mr. Ahmadinejad appears to be solidifying his support. He has traveled around the country, doling out promises of economic aid in some of the poorest regions, sticking with the humble clothing and religion-infused language that attracted his voters in the first place.
"He is leading a simple life," said Zabiollah Baderlou, 18, as he worked in a bakery in the city. "TV showed us his house. It was very simple. He is making these efforts for the people and all he wants is Iran's dignity."
Most of all, despite the limited powers of Iran's presidency, Mr. Ahmadinejad, an ultraconservative former militia member, has used Western opposition to Iran's nuclear program to generate national unity and purpose.
Those dynamics have compelled even people who oppose him to give him room to maneuver. Stop Iranians on any street in any neighborhood and they are likely to demand that Iran be allowed to pursue a nuclear energy program, a sentiment that has served as a launching platform for Mr. Ahmadinejad's firebrand politics.
"You get the feeling that Iran, under the present leadership, is looking for isolation and to go it alone," said a Western diplomat based in Tehran who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to be able to continue working here. "They want to show their way is the right way, and the former guys were wrong."
While the top leadership had decided to take a more confrontational approach with the West even before Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected, the new president began with such a harsh style that many officials were initially unnerved. But when the West failed to stop Iran from defiantly restarting its nuclear program, or to punish it, some opponents reluctantly accepted that Mr. Ahmadinejad was right and they were wrong.
"First we thought he is not right," said a senior government official who consults frequently with the ruling clergy. "Now we understand he is right. You need us more than we need you," he said of the West.
The nuclear issue has provided fertile ground for the president to try to cultivate a new political class, one that is ideologically driven to provide a new, and at the same time reactionary, face to Iran.
After years of reformers controlling the government, Mr. Ahmadinejad is doing exactly what he promised, resurrecting the priorities of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, chastising the West at every turn and striving to forge a distinctly anti-Western national identity while re-establishing Iran's revolutionary influence across the Muslim world.
At a conference in October titled "The World Without Zionism" he effectively called for wiping not just Israel off the map, but America, too.
"Many have tried to disperse disappointment in this struggle between the Islamic world and the infidels," he said. "They say it is not possible to have a world without the United States and Zionism. But you know that this is a possible goal and slogan."
While sprinkling like-minded people into positions of power across the country, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his allies have demonstrated that they are undeterred by the complaints of the establishment, whether liberal or conservative.
They have instead taken their appeal directly to the poor and middle-class masses who are generally disgusted with a system widely viewed as corrupt and uncaring.
For the time being, they also have the quiet support of the nation's ultimate ruler, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even those members of Parliament who charge that the president's foreign and domestic policies are sending the nation hurtling toward disaster find there is little to do but watch from the sidelines.
"Right now, Ahmadinejad is an individual representing a new body in the whole Iranian political system that had been marginalized and disorganized," said a political professor who has close ties to many people in the government and was afraid he would suffer retaliation if identified. "They are in the process of making their identity — and making history."
Mr. Ahmadinejad was largely unknown when he ran for office in June. He was the mayor of Tehran, the son of a blacksmith who had served in the hard-line Basiji militia — a volunteer Islamic vigilante force — and the Revolutionary Guard, and he was not expected to win. When he was elected, he was expected to fall into lockstep with the conservative forces that controlled every other institution of government.
Instead, he has charted his own course.
From the start he alienated many hard-liners by ignoring their nominees for important cabinet posts, turning to people he knew well, but who were largely unknown. Most of his choices had backgrounds in the military, the Basiji or the security services.
Mr. Ahmadinejad has come to represent a generational split among conservatives, some political analysts said. They said he belonged to a group of ideologically conservative veterans of the Iran-Iraq war who effectively parked themselves among the so-called hard-liners. With Mr. Ahmadinejad's election, they have begun to coalesce into their own political force.
With his team around him, Mr. Ahmadinejad has become the public face of Iran: aggressive, provocative and heatedly anti-American. He has adopted the phrase "world oppressor," in place of Great Satan, and his speeches are laced with religious references, including an emphasis on one of the central principles of the Shiite sect of Islam: an appeal for justice.
Since ultimate power here is vested in the hands of appointed clergy, Mr. Ahmadinejad does not exert direct control over foreign affairs or nuclear policy.
But his ascension came at a time when the region was in turmoil, with Iraq bogged down in a violent insurgency, Islamic groups like Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt emerging as powerful political forces, and Iran itself determined to develop a nuclear program that it says is peaceful and the West charges is aimed at developing weapons. And that insulates him from criticism.
"If it wasn't for the foreign pressures, perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad, and his ministers, would have been called to the Majlis many times to explain themselves," said Akbar Alami, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Majlis, or Parliament, and an outspoken critic of the president. "As the pressure has increased, the safety margins for him to operate have widened."
Moreover, Mr. Ahmadinejad is looking beyond Iran, seeking to fashion himself as a pan-Islamic leader, much the way Ayatollah Khomeini did. His ideological framework has been heavily influenced by his mentor and spiritual leader, Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, a senior hard-line cleric who runs a school in the religious center of Qum and who advocates a strict Islamic government.
It is not clear whether Mr. Ahmadinejad decided to push to make Iran a regional leader, or whether he is trying to carry out a decision made at a higher level. But that posture is increasingly part of Iran's defiant public statements.
"The nuclear challenge is a big deception in the West where they know we do not want nuclear weapons," Muhammad Javad Larijani, brother of the nation's chief nuclear negotiator said during a Friday prayer ceremony. "What they are really concerned about is an advanced Islam. They are concerned the Islamic expansion will be a success, following the same concern they had for Communism."
It is still very early in the president's term, and there is ample evidence that many powerful people within the establishment are still worried by the tone and direction Mr. Ahmadinejad has taken. And some people speculated that the supreme leader might in the end muzzle him, should consequences turn out to be too dire. But for now, hampered by nationalist reaction to the West's pressure on Iran, even some of his harshest critics are treading lightly.
"I am saying that we have reached a sensitive point," Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the chairman of the Expediency Council, which has oversight of the executive branch, said in a recent speech, referring to Iran's relations with the West. "There is a need for prudence on both sides." Mr. Rafsanjani ran against Mr. Ahmadinejad in the election for president, emphasizing a platform of engagement with the West.
"We all agree in the country that we should have a peaceful nuclear program," said Kazem Jalali, a member of Parliament. "The difference is over how we can have an effective diplomacy. In the past months we have seen our officials use tough language in the foreign policy. They are adopting a confrontational approach, which does not seem to be acceptable by the international community. This is not balanced. We must pursue our interests in our foreign policy based on balanced relations with all countries."
From the sidelines, reformers are now trying to regroup. Many of them say that the best factor in their favor is the president himself. The feeling is that the president can not, ultimately, meet all his economic promises, and that his policy of confrontation will undermine rather than improve people's lives.
Abdullah Momenie, a leader within the student movement that called for a boycott of the presidential election, said: "We see the sensitivity of the world community as a positive thing. Although we think it is an unwise action of power which may take the country to destruction, this might produce an opportunity for a democratic movement."
But so far the president has the upper hand.
President Ahmadinejad's comments at an Islamic conference in Mecca about wiping out Israel brought him international condemnation — and applause from his target audience.
"He raised the question in Mecca and he received a huge amount of praise," said Mehdi Chamran, the chairman of the Tehran City Council and a close adviser to the president who often travels with him. "The people living in these countries, within their hearts, they are happy to hear these statements. If we can strengthen ties with the people that is most important. When we hear the Egyptians take him as a role model, this is a real sign he has reached the people."
In practical terms, the management of Iran has begun to change since the new government came to power. The Parliament has been fighting with the executive branch over a budget proposal, saying that its generous spending could threaten inflation. But the budget seems to reflect the president's campaign promise to spend more money on people's immediate needs. The president has taken a few swipes at tightening some social freedoms, banning Western music, for example, but that edict has hardly been enforced.
President Ahmadinejad is forging a distinct style. For the first time, an Iranian president is regularly holding cabinet meetings in provinces around the country. He has so far visited five provinces and one city with his cabinet, walking the streets, shaking hands, kissing local people and promising a bevy of development projects.
After a cabinet meeting in Hormozgan in the south, his aides announced that the government would allocate money to rebuild old buildings, install a gas pipeline, build and equip health centers, provide land for building a mosque, buy equipment for a hospital, build an athletic center for women and offer low-interest loans to families who lost their homes in an earthquake.
No one says where the money will come from, or when, but the retail politics has won him affection from the base he continues to cultivate.
"In my opinion, Ahmadinejad is a good person, a trustful person who believes in God, and I hope he is able to fulfill his pledges," said Morovat Asaadi, 36, a construction painter as he walked near Tajrish Square in Tehran. "I like him very much. He is a good person."
Nazila Fathi contributed reporting for this article.