Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The rash revolutionary

The Guardian:
Like a speed-crazed driver of a Paykan - the anachronistic Hillman Hunter prototype that remains king of Iran's roads - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is steering his country in a reckless fashion, without due care for oncoming traffic or blind bends, and as with the ageing saloon car, there is no guarantee that the engine of the Iranian state is equipped to take such rough handling.

The number of heedless political risks taken by Iran's fundamentalist president seems to grow by the day. So too does the sensation of a cataclysmic accident waiting to happen. READ MORE

In the space of six days during the past fortnight, Mr Ahmadinejad provoked a tidal wave of international condemnation by calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map" before raising diplomatic temperatures from incandescent to white heat levels with a purge of Iranian foreign service personnel that saw 40 ambassadors and senior officials sacked at once. Meanwhile, his government stridently asserts its right to develop a nuclear programme when the International Atomic Energy Agency is edging closer to referring Iran to the UN security council.

It is hardly a textbook demonstration of politics as the art of the possible. But like his religiously devout US counterpart, who once dismissed President Bush the elder as the wrong father from whom to seek strength in times of crisis, Mr Ahmadinejad's actions are drawn from an inspiration far transcending mundane political realities.

To his compatriots, the president's iconoclastic exploits on the global stage aren't the half of it. Of more immediate concern here are his actions at home, which yield no quarter to political convention or constructive criticism.

The high-velocity collision invited by this approach was narrowly averted today when Mr Ahmadinejad's nomination for the key oil ministry, Sadeq Mahsouli, withdrew his candidacy just hours before it went to a parliamentary vote. Even in a parliament dominated by religious conservatives nominally supportive of his fundamentalist agenda, the president's nominee had appeared to be heading for almost certain rejection after being dismissed as an unqualified crony with no knowledge of the oil industry. Having already had his original choice rejected on the same grounds, today's 11th hour retreat may yet sound the death knell to Mr Ahmadinejad's goal of using Iran's oil wealth to help the poor and reduce inequality.

The president's economic agenda is already in trouble. The anticipated capital flight, feared as a consequence of his election, has come to pass and investment has plummeted. With financial markets alarmed by his call for interest rate cuts by decree in the face of rising inflation, the Tehran stock exchange has plunged 25% in the past four months. Mr Ahmadinejad, noted for his fierce temper and rudeness towards aides, reportedly told a recent cabinet meeting that the problems could be solved "if they allowed us to execute two or three individuals".

It has not come to that yet. But last week the heads of six leading banks received the ambassadorial treatment when they were summarily replaced by men hand-picked by the Ahmadinejad government.

With his unsurpassed revolutionary credentials, it is perhaps not surprising that the new man in Tehran is not a believer in continuity.

What is striking, however, is that, like George W eschewing the guidance of his biological father, Mr Ahmadinejad seems to take his cue from somewhere other than the expected source.

Rather than show unstinting loyalty to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the president is said to be under the spell of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, an ultra-hardliner espousing total isolation from the west. Some observers think Mr Ahmadinejad and his followers believe Mr Mesbah-Yazdi would make a better supreme leader than Mr Khamenei, a conviction that could have profound implications for the future of the country's Islamic power structure.

Behind this opaque window of deftly shifting loyalties lurks another influential figure, a Karl Rove character, although the parallels are inexact. Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh, a devotee of Mr Mesbah-Yazdi, is Mr Ahmadinejad's de facto chief of staff and bestrides his government. In contrast to his brusque approach to other associates, the president treats Mr Samareh with reverential respect, standing behind him diffidently at prayers.

Mr Samareh is notoriously publicity shy, but his past role in Iran's foreign ministry shines the brightest light of all on the country's new approach to diplomacy and the outside world. During the early 90s, Mr Samareh was director of the ministry's placements office, affording him a big say over who got plum foreign postings and almost dictatorial powers over how they behaved once they got them.

According to Iranian website Rooz Online, Mr Samareh composed a training programme called The Psychology of the Infidels, which provided insights on how to trap staff and the use of sex in procuring information or intelligence.

Particularly arresting was his notion of the model Islamic diplomat.

In Mr Samareh's view, this was the very antithesis of the well-groomed urbane socialite found in embassies the world over. A corrupted Iranian diplomat was one who wore perfectly creased trousers and polished, lace-up shoes and who smiled at strangers. Smart shoes and trousers were a sign of insufficient commitment to prayer and of being seduced by "royalty". Only shoes that were bent at the back and easily removable for prayer would do. Smiling at strangers was a "western" habit bespeaking weakness to foreign visitors who should be assumed to be spies.

In a world where appearance and human interaction mean so much, it is a disquietingly eccentric set of values. And its shaper is the back-seat driver in President Ahmadinejad's Paykan as it continues its white-knuckle ride to no one quite knows where.