Pious Populist

Understanding the rise of Iran's president

Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won a surprise election victory in 2005, has descended into infamy in the United States as a dangerous demagogue and an anti-Semite. Ahmadinejad must be taken seriously, however, and not just for his threats, verbal outbursts, and political provocations. Wherever he speaks and whomever he addresses, Ahmadinejad is always communicating with a domestic audience of millions of citizens in Iran, as well as with the rest of the Muslim world. He knows his audience well and, while he may convey an air of clumsy haphazardness, his discourse and demeanor express a meticulously crafted, politically astute message of pious populism. He is very much a product of recent Iranian history, and understanding his early years and rise to power provides insight into current circumstances in Iran, his own likely course of action, and the prospects for Iranian political reform.

Born on October 28, 1956, Ahmadinejad was the fourth child of a poor family who lived in a small village not far from Tehran, Iran’s capital. A few years later, his father moved the family to Tehran, part of a massive migration of Iranian villagers to cities that began in the late 1950s, stimulated by policies undertaken by the Shah in response to American pressures.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, then Shah of Iran, had first come to power in 1941, and was restored to his throne with American and British help in a 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. After the coup the Shah was widely understood as, in the words of a U.S. ambassador, “a ward of the U.S.” In the late 1950s American advice mattered. With the Cold War raging and concern about oil supplies on the rise, the Eisenhower administration worried that the Shah’s repressive regime would incite a social revolution. The resulting pressure to liberalize, which mounted during the Kennedy years, compelled the Shah to introduce a series of socioeconomic reforms collectively known as the White Revolution (“white” for its supposed nonviolent nature).

The reforms granted women the right to vote and participate in the political process, secularized education and increased access to schools, and tried (unsuccessfully) to enable Iran’s religious minorities—principally Baha’is, Jews, and Christians—to take the oath of office on a holy book of their own choosing. The centerpiece of the “revolution,” though, was land reform. With that, along with other elements of the White Revolution, the Shah, U.S. analysts thought, would trade support from the traditional but corrupt landed gentry for that of a newly enfranchised peasantry and a bourgeoning middle class of technocrats, teachers, and shopkeepers. The Kennedy administration hoped land reform would first bring about dramatic social change and then—as predicted by contemporary theories of modernization—political transformation and a more liberal polity.

But Iran’s land reform program was troubled from the start. Although a sizeable number of peasants received land, each plot was usually too small to sustain an entire family. Moreover, rising oil revenues were turning Tehran and other big cities into virtual El Dorados. Instead of producing an enfranchised peasantry and an urban middle class, land reform led millions of villagers to migrate to the cities in search of better lives, expediting the movement of people like the Ahmadinejads to Tehran.

Politically, things were no better. The secular opposition—left and center—never accepted the reforms as genuine. Embittered by the 1953 coup against a powerfully nationalist prime minister, they did not regard the Shah’s regime as legitimate; it was, they said, a puppet of the United States, incapable of bringing about genuine change. The Shah himself, convinced that economic growth would guarantee his own survival, was unwilling to share political power with the new middle class, and certainly not with the poor masses converging on the cities. Nor, even more importantly, did the Shah’s regime make any effort to socially integrate families like the Ahmadinejads, who had flocked to the cities but were uncomfortable with the cosmopolitan ethos they found there. Moreover, from the beginning the conservative clergy viewed the White Revolution as an affront to Islam and a dangerous move toward Western modernity: Ayatollah Khomeini immediately denounced the proposed reforms, led the clerical opposition, and spent eight months under house arrest for his speeches against the Shah, the reforms, and an impending bill granting U.S. citizens immunity from prosecution in Iranian courts. His arrest, in 1963, provoked powerful urban protest, the so-called uprising of 15 Khordad 1342, which led to a large number of deaths—thousands according to the opposition, 400 according to more reliable sources.

The pressure on Iran to liberalize, which had continued through much of the 1960s, ended with the Nixon administration. The Nixon doctrine rejected the idea that the United States should police the world and pushed instead for strengthening local military powers, with Iran serving as the new hegemonic force in the Persian Gulf. Given carte blanche to buy new weapons systems, the Shah—faced with growing political pressure from below—grew increasingly authoritarian. Ignoring the letter and spirit of the Constitution, he banned all the existing parties and crafted a one-party system. Calling the party Rastakhiz (meaning “resurgence” or “rebirth”), he decreed that every Iranian must join it and eventually ordered party officials to develop an ideology for the country “based on the laws of dialectics.”

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Like millions drawn to the city during those years, the Ahmadinejad family settled in one of Tehran’s poorest neighborhoods and brought with them the cultural conservatism and traditional Islam of Iran’s peasantry. Struggling to make a living through odd jobs, the elder Ahmadinejad continued to cultivate in his son an unbending devotion to Islam. Even by the standards of other villagers, the family was unusually devout. As a boy, Ahmadinejad regularly accompanied his father to the mosque and insisted on performing all religious duties and rituals, even before the requisite age. While his parents were regular participants in neighborhood religious organizations, Ahmadinejad himself was keen on learning and reciting the Qur’an.

Ahmadinejad became a hard-working, disciplined high school student, often finishing at the top of his class. In 1976 he took Iran’s national university entrance exams, and claims his score ranked 132nd among more than 400,000 examinees that year (though the school he chose to attend—the College of Science and Technology—was in the second-tier of such institutions, which is hard to reconcile with his claim). Those years saw a sharp rise in the number of new mosques throughout Iran, and prayer rooms in high schools and colleges. Concerned about the growing strength of his political opponents on the left, the Shah saw the piety of young men like Ahmadinejad as an antidote to communism. He failed to recognize the ambitions of clerics like Ayatollah Khomeini and their potential attraction to culturally alienated and economically disgruntled working class Iranians. Khomeini himself had been living in exile in Najaf, Iraq, since 1965, but his lectures on velayat-e faqih—his novel doctrine of guardianship by a leading Islamic jurist—were in circulation covertly among his followers in Iran. While clerical leaders willing to stay clear of politics were amply rewarded by the Shah’s regime, those who sided with Khomeini’s activist version of Shi’ism were sent to prison.

In 1977 U.S. policy in Iran changed suddenly once again. President Jimmy Carter’s talk of human rights, and his apparent willingness to pressure the Shah to liberalize, emboldened the once-cowed Iranian opposition. Ahmadinejad was by then a college student and became active in organizing Islamic students. For young men like Ahmadinejad, the Shah’s liberalization policy provided an opportunity to safely enter the world of politics. For the Shah, however, this “opening-up” proved disastrous. A mix of personal, political, economic, and social factors came together and created the perfect political storm: the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Political openings are dangerous for despotic regimes. The Shah was forced to liberalize, under direct pressure from the United States, at a time when oil revenues and economic growth were declining sharply. In 1976, he had gone on what the CIA called a “lending binge,” giving away almost two billion dollars. Yet less than two years later, Iran was back to borrowing. And the Shah himself was sick. Diagnosed with lymphoma and undergoing chemotherapy, he was on medication that made him depressed, paranoid, and pathologically indecisive. From his first days on the throne, he had shown a clear aversion to conflict and a decided inability to withstand pressure, and the medication only augmented this tendency.

Ahmadinejad and his family were among the millions who became foot soldiers of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. Khomeini and his allies used an intricate network of mosques, religious classes, Qur’an recitals, and even modern lecture halls to consolidate their hold on traditional families. They also attracted new allies from the burgeoning middle class by offering what seemed to be a less dogmatic, more rational version of Shi’ism. The most successful such effort was made by Ali Shariati, a powerful orator whose lectures combined elements of Marxism, existentialism, structuralism, and the post-colonial theories of Franz Fanon with Shi’ism to fashion an ideology of social action. The clergy knew, through centuries of living close to the society, that the middle classes would be a dominant force in determining the future of Iran. Whoever formed an alliance with them would control the country’s future. Relying on the traditional pieties of the poor, the clergy’s new middle class allies made them a formidable force. Ahmadinejad learned that lesson well.

The growing network of Islamic institutions almost went unnoticed by Iran’s secret police. The Shah remained concerned about secular democrats and the left; he believed the clergy—who shared his hostility to these elements—were his strategic allies. He also believed that the enfranchised peasantry, grateful for the land he had given them, would come to his defense. He was wrong. Nor could the Iranian middle classes be bribed into political silence in return for a better economic life. The revolution was at least partially the result of this miscalculation.

(Ironically, today many of the same clergy who rode the Shah’s economic determinism into victory are banking on the same kind of policy. This time they call it “the China model,” and many in the regime’s leadership, notably Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Hashemi Rafsanjani, think it represents the only way the regime can survive in its current form. According to this “model,” the regime will allow the country to experience a liberalized economic boom, and in return the clergy will cling to its monopoly hold on power. For a variety of reasons, including the obvious inability of the Iranian regime to match China’s savings rate or internal market, or its ability to attract foreign investments, the China model is a pipe dream for Iran.)

The writings of Shariati, as well as the pro-Islamic writings of Jalal Al-Ahmad, easily one of the most influential intellectuals of his generation, paved the way for the alliance between a significant segment of the middle classes and the Islamic traditionalist poor. Moreover, the presence of a religious wing of the National Front—secular democrats who owed their political influence to the legacy of former prime minister Mossadeq—and the presence of characters like Mehdi Bazargan, a professor at Tehran University and a man of unbending piety and a long history of democratic activism in favor of democracy—made the alliance more palatable not just to the middle classes, but also to the Carter administration. In a 1979 cable from Iran, then American ambassador, William Sullivan, reflected these false hopes by suggesting that the Shia clergy are democratic in inclination and reliably anti-Communist. Finally, the Stalinist left joined the coalition in the hope of using Khomeini to overthrow the Shah and then, in due course, overthrow Khomeini and seize power. They wanted to follow a kind of “Leninist strategy” against Khomeini, but as it happened, Khomeini “out-Lenined” all the Leninists.

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The unwieldy social and ideological coalition that brought Khomeini to power shared nothing but enmity for the Shah. With his departure, those differences emerged with full force. While religious activists like Ahmadinejad embraced Khomeini’s theocratic project, the technocratic middle classes hoped to use Khomeini against the Shah and then create a secular, democratic republic. The urban poor joined the coalition when Khomeini and his allies promised them economic benefits—free houses and free electricity, more wages, and less pressure from the government and their own bosses. No sooner had the Shah departed than the network of religious organizations, with a mosque in nearly every town and neighborhood, began quickly to dominate the revolution: in late 1979 the country voted in a referendum to become an Islamic Republic.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, and as a direct result of clerical dominance, Iran experienced an Islamic version of the Reign of Terror, resulting ever since in cycles of violence. Iran is something of an ethnic and religious quilt. At least a quarter of its 70-plus million people speak Turkish. Another six or seven million are of Kurdish origin. Yet another two to three million speak Arabic, and at least a million are Baluchis, who live in an area bordering Pakistan. During the Pahlavi era, the Shah and his father mimicked the Ataturk model (which banned Turkey’s Kurds from speaking Kurdish) and tried to solve Iran’s ethnic difficulties by enforcing a unified “Persian identity” and making it illegal for ethno-linguistic minorities to speak or teach their native languages.

When the central government appeared vulnerable after the revolution, simmering ethnic grievances erupted. In Iran’s Kurdish region, civil war broke out, leaving thousands dead. (The only job Ahmadinejad held before becoming mayor of Tehran was in the mid 1990s, when he was named the governor of Ardibil, which was populated predominantly by Turkish-speaking Iranians.)

Moreover, the regime’s attempt to impose its understanding of Islamic traditions—from mandating headscarves to banning unveiled women from television or films—created social strife in the country’s modernized cities. Some of the new strictures produced comical results: Hollywood films were shown with the women eliminated from every scene. Or “illicit” affairs between unmarried lovers were written out of scripts and replaced with more chaste relations, such as that of brother and sister.

Ayatollah Khomeini also began a massive purge of the military, which he suspected of harboring royalist tendencies. The Iranian air force, in particular, was decimated. After the government claimed to have aborted a coup attempt by a group of pilots, three hundred pilots were reportedly executed by firing squad. A new force, called the Revolutionary Guards of the Islamic Republic and composed of devout young men, often from the countryside, was created to safeguard the revolution and its leaders. Ahmadinejad would join them soon after the war with Iraq began in 1980. Their conservative cultural ethos and rancor against secular intellectuals and the middle class gradually emerged as the regime’s social paradigm. The regime began a massive policy of nationalizing and confiscating factories and banks owned by the elite of the Shah’s rule.

The bureaucracy no less than the military was purged. By harassing women who refused to wear the veil and pressuring men who did not display piety and devotion in their appearance, the regime facilitated the largest emigration in Iran’s history. The long war with Iraq, together with Saddam’s decision to bomb defenseless cities like Tehran, would accelerate this process. Those who left tended to be the more educated middle classes. Today at least two million—by some estimates, four million—live in exile.

In November 1979, with the country engulfed in military conflicts with ethnic minorities and clashes with the central government, and with many cities beset by strikes and student unrest, a new crisis emerged when radical Islamic students, encouraged and supported by the secular left, took over the American embassy in Tehran. In early planning for the takeover, the organizers asked the Islamic Student Association of each university to send two representatives to a clandestine plenary meeting. As scholars Alireza Haghighi and Victoria Tahmasebi have reported, Ahmadinejad, then an engineering student, was one of two delegates from the College of Science and Technology. When he heard of the plans, he demurred; he wanted them to first seek a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini. But the organizers wanted to give their leader “plausible deniability.” A few weeks later, when it emerged that Khomeini was bent on turning the hostage crisis into political theater to consolidate his own power, Ahmadinejad tried to join the student leadership committee. This time he was told he was not welcome. The episode became particularly important when, years later in the days after Ahmadinejad’s election as president, some of the former American hostages claimed that Ahmadinejad had been their guard, even their interrogator. All evidence, including an investigation by the CIA, has indicated that the allegations were untrue.

Khomeini used the hostage crisis—and the preoccupation with the embassy takeover in Iran, the United States, and much of the West—to pass a draconian constitution that placed virtually all power in the hands of an unelected ayatollah. He had come to power officially promising a democratic republic, though his own doctrine of the rule of the judges had circulated widely among his followers. From exile in Paris (where he went after Saddam Hussein expelled him from Iraq in 1978), he had said that no clergy would hold office when the revolution won power. But once back in Iran and empowered by the revolution, he placed virtually all power in his own hands and claimed a legitimacy founded on divine right, not popular will. If anyone dared remind him of his democratic promises, he resorted to an important concept of Shi’ism called tagiyeh. Much like Jesuitical equivocation, tagiyeh allows the pious to prevaricate in the service of preserving the faith or leading the faithful. (Khomeini was also a great admirer of Plato, and his doctrine of the guardianship of the jurist (velayat-e faqih) bears striking resemblance to Plato’s ideal of a republic ruled by a philosopher king, just as his idea of tagiyeh is similar to Plato’s idea of the noble lie.)

In Iran, as scholar Arash Naraghi has shown, Khomeini has even tinkered with his own theory of the rule of the jurist. Initially, according to his interpretation of the law, the purpose of such a government was to implement Shari’ah (religious law.) When faced with the practical problems of running a modern polity based on religious laws that were a thousand years old, however, Khomeini offered a new variant of his theory. Now, the ultimate goal of Islamic government is the preservation of the state itself, and all rules of Shari’ah, even the pillars of faith, are subject to change, depending on the interests of the state. In the new version the state is everything, and Shari’ah is but its tool.

As a nod to the democratic aspirations of the movement that had brought him to power, Ayatollah Khomeini allowed constitutional provisions for a powerless, but elected, presidency and a unicameral parliament. But even these weak institutions were circumscribed by the power of unelected mullahs. An appointed institution called the Council of Experts, composed of clerics and experts in Shari’ah, had veto power over all laws it deemed inimical to the letter or spirit of Islam. Initially of uncertain significance, it turned out to be a key factor in the clergy’s control of the county. During the presidency of the reformist Khatami (1997–2005), for example, the Council of Experts rejected more than two hundred laws passed by parliament in a two-year legislative term. The same council has also claimed for itself the right to veto candidates for any election in the country. In one election for the parliament (or Majlis), they rejected more than three thousand candidates, most of them supporters of Khatami-style reform.

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The Iranian Revolution opened an opportunity for Ahmadinejad to enter politics; that opportunity vastly expanded after the eight-year war with Iraq.

Saddam Hussein, who hated Persians as a matter of principle—his last words from the gallows were “death to Persians”—and who had been unhappy about a 1975 agreement he signed with Iran over border issues, saw an opportunity in Iran’s domestic weakness and international isolation. With support from Persian Gulf Arab states concerned about Shia radicalism, and perhaps the United States (it was rumored that they “discreetly” issued a “green light”), Saddam ordered an attack on Iran in September 1980.

After some easy initial successes, Iraqi forces met stiff resistance. By 1982 they had been pushed back to their international borders. Many of the same Arab states that had encouraged Saddam to invade, expecting a quick victory, were now willing to pay reparations to Iran in return for a ceasefire. Khomeini refused, saying that the war would end only when Saddam was deposed. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued a presidential directive that made helping Iraq defeat Iran his administration’s official policy. The Soviet Union, France, Germany, England, and China offered arms and other aid to both sides. The war, begun by despotic ambition, continued by despotic intransigence, and prolonged by the greed of many nations, went on for eight years; close to a million people died, with millions displaced on both sides.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fought with particular ferocity, and among them was the young Ahmadinejad. His precise role in the war has been something of a mystery. But we know that the Revolutionary Guards, under-equipped in battle compared with the Iraqi army, used throngs of young volunteers, called Basij, to walk over minefields in assaults on heavily fortified Iraqi positions. Reliable reports describe the Islamic Republic using stand-ins for Shi’ism’s revered and messianic twelfth Imam, each appearing on the horizon astride his horse and surrounded by an aura, encouraging the young men to fight on. Plastic keys, ostensibly good for opening the door to heaven, and to erotic and culinary delights, were also given to these young men, who walked to their deaths.

When the war ended, and the Revolutionary Guards and the Basiji returned to their cities and villages, they were shocked by the corruption that had transformed many of the revolutionaries in the clerical leadership into very rich men. Some had enriched themselves by virtually taking over industries that had been confiscated from the old regime. Others had become rich as the result of the war itself—from selling ration cards or receiving kick-backs in black-market arms purchases. While some Revolutionary Guard commanders and Basiji leaders soon acquired wealth of fantastic proportions themselves, the more devout members were deeply disturbed by it and began to plan for a return to the pieties of the early days of revolution. Ahmadinejad was among them.

The eight-year presidency of Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, the reformist president Mohammed Khatami, who was willing to expand personal freedoms and improve relations with the West, further convinced these devout Islamists that the very soul of the revolution had been compromised. A group of Guard leaders, including a recently appointed commander, signed an angry note to Ayatollah Khamenei, the “spiritual leader,” declaring deep dissatisfaction with the frequent pro-democratic student demonstrations under Khatami and threatening to take “necessary measures” to re-establish Islamic values.

Ahmadinejad’s election as the mayor of Tehran in 2003 was the result of public discontent with the Khatami reform movement. When elections to the city council came around, only about eleven percent of the population participated, and Ahmadinejad and a slate of his ideological allies won; they handily elected him the mayor. Though the city council was a notorious den of corruption, he lived a simple life, remaining in his lower-middle-class neighborhood. One of his earliest acts as mayor was to bury exhumed bodies of “war martyrs” in public squares of the city.

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Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election, one of his chief lieutenants observed after the victory, was no “accident.” It was the result of “two years of complicated, multifaceted planning” by a coalition that included Revolutionary Guards commanders, a handful of clergy, some leaders of the Basiji (unhappy that the government had not yet given them jobs in the coveted civil service), and friends and allies of Ahmadinejad from his days as mayor of Tehran. This coalition was helped to victory by Ayatollah Khamenei. Easily the most powerful man in the country today, Khamenei has legal control of the army, the police, the intelligence agencies, the Revolutionary Guards and Basijis, the judiciary, and the country’s radio and television station. He also controls more than half of the Iranian economy through his control of the foundations (Bonyads) created from wealth confiscated during the revolution.

In the weeks before the election, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was running against Ahmadinejad, promised to work to curtail Khamenei’s power. Rafsanjani, the presumed winner, talked more like a chief of state than a candidate. His message pleased Europeans who had long seen Rafsanjani as a leader with whom they could do business, but it angered Khamenei, who helped secure Ahmadinejad’s surprise victory. While Rafsanjani and the other losing candidates claimed that millions of dollars from public coffers had been illegally poured into the Ahmadinejad campaign, Khamenei “suggested” to all Revolutionary Guard commanders and Basiji leaders that they should vote for Ahmadinejad, each taking as many family members along as they could. Moreover, Ahmadinejad benefited from his rival’s complicity in creating the political situation voters had come to despise. When Rafsanjani—the “moderate” inside the Iranian regime who had arranged the secret Iran-contra negotiations between Iran and the Reagan administration—tried to reinvent himself as a candidate of reform, voters did not take him seriously.

Although Khamenei helped Ahmadinejad to power—it was rumored that after an eight-year troubled relationship with Khatami, the leader wanted an inexperienced and malleable president—he got more than he bargained for. After taking office Ahmadinejad began a massive purge of the Iranian bureaucracy, installing allies in key positions. Ahmadinejad’s administration has rightly been called a “barracks regime,” with a majority of his cabinet officials and top managers coming from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence agencies. The size of this network of allies and supporters surprised nearly all observers and apparently even Khamenei himself. More importantly, Ahmadinejad not only made new appointments but tried to change the criteria for them, recalling the early days of the revolution when publicly demonstrated piety was the sole basis for appointment to key positions in government and the economy. The most recent example of this shift is the appointment of an ex-Basiji leader, with no experience in nuclear matters, as Iran’s chief negotiator in the crucial and tense negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, in the February 2006 elections this same group of Revolutionary Guards and Basiji commanders captured a majority of seats in the parliament and ministerial positions.

The U.S. war in Iraq has strengthened Ahmadinejad’s hand by turning his bid for a nuclear weapons program into an Iranian nationalist cause. In the early 1970s Iran, with encouragement from the United States and Israel, launched an ambitious nuclear program. No fewer than twenty reactors were envisioned for the country. Some sources even claim that Israel had begun planning a joint program to help Iran develop missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. When the revolution came, Ayatollah Khomeini brought these programs to a grinding halt. Iran, he claimed, did not need a nuclear program, and he accused the Shah’s involvement in it as another sign that he was the imperialists’ lackey. Of course ending the nuclear program in 1979 was also something of a necessity. With much of its foreign currency reserves frozen by the United States as punishment for the hostage crisis, Iran was facing a serious financial crisis.

But in 1984, Saddam Hussein began to use chemical weapons against both restive Iraqi Kurds and Iranian forces. While the United States and the rest of the international community remained virtually silent, the regime in Tehran decided that it needed to revive the nuclear program and develop “an Islamic bomb” for its own security. In 1988, according to a recently declassified document, leaders of the Revolutionary Guards told Ayatollah Khomeini that the only way Iran could win the war with Iraq was with the acquisition of nuclear bombs. By then Iran’s nuclear program had already been fully launched.

Instead of following the protocols of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran had been one of the first signatories, the Islamic Republic, worried about reactions from the United States and Israel, embarked on a covert program. Their hope, according to Ayatollah Rouhani, Iran’s nuclear negotiator before Ahmadinejad’s presidency, was “to do a North Korea on the world” and force the West to accept Iran’s nuclear program as a fait accompli. Since the program based in the city of Natanz was discovered five years ago, it has dominated Iran’s relations with the United States, the European Union, and even Russia. Ahmadinejad has been able to use the nuclear program to ride a wave of nationalism at home, and Muslim anger and frustration globally.

Ahmadinejad has used his defiance of the United States and Israel, and his infamous comments about the Holocaust and the destruction of Israel, to similar political advantage. And through coverage in the Iranian media, he has parlayed this popularity and his rock star treatment in the American media into more power at home. He even used to great advantage Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger’s grandstanding when Ahmadinejad spoke on that campus this fall. Instead of setting up a confrontation between Bollinger’s denunciation and Ahmadinejad’s wounded innocence, the university might have conditioned Ahmadinejad’s appearance on his willingness to participate on a panel of scholars, activists, and representatives of religious and ethnic minorities. It would have shown the Iranian president requisite respect yet denied him another chance to assume the role of insulted victim.

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Ahmadinejad has turned many things to his advantage, but neither Israel, nor the Holocaust, nor Iran’s nuclear program figured in his presidential campaign. Ahmadinejad was brought to power by his ability to understand and connect with the poor. He had mastered—in his words and deeds, his gestures and dress—a kind of populism that plays on fears and anxieties, especially among Iran’s poor. Not only did he do well in the poorer sections of the cities, he also easily carried the countryside. Even some from the middle class, unwilling to vote for Rafsanjani, voted for Ahmadinejad. To appeal to their technocratic impulses he uses the title of doctor, received when he finished his graduate studies in traffic engineering. Moreover, after Khamenei’s “suggestion,” the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, along with their families, voted in the millions for him.

In interviews and speeches in Iran, he uses vernacular expressions and street idioms. He nearly always wears his uniform—an oversize jacket (or tunic), baggy pants, and a baggy shirt (Islam forbids any clothing, on men or women, that might betray bodily curves), all invariably light in color. He never wears a tie—the unmistakable sign of modernity. And since Islam forbids the frivolous sensation of a razor blade on a man’s face, Ahmadinejad’s beard is also part of his persona. All aspects of his appearance are intended to signal the sharp tension between moderns and traditionalists.

In the international media his traditional appearance is intended to be a challenge to the West, but at home it is equally provocative. Iran is a divided society, with a dedicated minority of about fifteen to twenty percent committed to the regime and its clerical leadership, and a disgruntled majority—some angry for economic reasons, others (especially women) alienated by the regime’s cultural policies and the sheer social and legal constraints on their lives.

Pulsating beneath the restrictions of Islamic Iran, however, is a world of vibrant youthful cosmopolitanism. Three out of every five Iranians are under the age of thirty. Their dress and values are drawn less from traditional Islam than from the norms of a global avant-garde. They are Internet savvy: indeed Iran ranks number one in the world in number of bloggers per capita.

The decidedly modern aesthetic accomplishments of Iranian cinema—embodied in the work of masters like Abbas Kiarostami—are now a matter of global acclaim, and a less well-known but no less vibrant renaissance is taking place in Iranian music. A generation of new composers, lyricists, musicians, and vocalists, equally at home with Western musical forms and the complexities of Persian classical music, have created a new genre that combines subtle social criticism with an ironic bite. Mohsen Namjoo—an internationally acclaimed artist from a traditional family—uses traditional “tar” to render jazz melodies and the guitar to play classical Persian music; Kiosk, easily Iran’s most popular rock band, melds the gruff timbre of Bob Dylan’s voice with the bitter lyricism of Leonard Cohen, and hints of Persian classical music.

The society ruled by the mullahs is also undergoing something of a sexual revolution. For men and women, bodies have become vessels of protest, sometimes defiant and dangerously promiscuous. A recent study by Pomona College anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi reported that at least half the married women interviewed in the more affluent parts of Tehran admit to having extra-marital affairs. The number is startling when we remember that adultery is a capital crime in Iran. The law is no less draconian with regard to homosexuality. After Ahmadinejad’s recent New York visit many commentators questioned his strange claim that there are no homosexuals in Iran, not simply because it is obviously false, but because the regime has executed a number of people accused of homosexuality in the last few years. The regime is so averse to homosexuality—which they consider a sin, and its discussion a form of cultural imperialism—that it has, for many years now, offered to pay for sex change operations for anyone with a “problematic” sexual identity. Nonetheless, in Tehran there are parks and restaurants openly identified as homosexual meeting places. Those who are part of the Iranian Diaspora publish online magazines dedicated to serious discussion of the social condition of Iran’s gay men and lesbians.

Ahmadinejad’s conservatism quickly put him at odds with university students. In the early days of his presidency he planned to re-bury martyrs on university campuses, repeating his symbolic gesture as mayor of Tehran. Students rejected the idea and resisted vigorously, insisting on keeping university campuses free of religious iconography. Objecting to the idea afforded students an opportunity to show their dissatisfaction with the new president and his insistence on etching symbols of piety and martyrdom on the city landscape. The episode was one in a long series of confrontations between Ahmadinejad and university students who have been in the vanguard of the fight for justice and democracy.

Iran’s social divisions were sharply captured in the 2005 presidential campaign. In a now famous film made by his campaign, Ahmadinejad is shown walking into a simple room in a humble house in a lower-middle-class city neighborhood. It is his family home. He sits cross-legged in front of a tablecloth on the floor. His wife appears, clad from head to toe in a black chador. His children, too, are shown exhibiting their father’s simplicity of style. The family is eating lunch; their manners are those of most Iranian working class or peasant families. The contrast with Rafsanjani’s campaign was glaring. In one ad, the candidate sits around a big oval table with young men and women, all dressed in fashionable, affluent, urban attire. One of the girls, a scarf barely covering her hair, complains about the lack of entertainment for youth; the camera then focuses on Rafsanjani, with tears of sympathy for her plight. While Rafsanjani was clearly appealing to society’s upper crust and its youth, Ahmadinejad, in all he said and did during the campaign, was appealing to the society’s poor and playing upon their anxieties and resentment about the revolution’s unfulfilled economic promises. He campaigned on a message of ending corruption and giving the poor an equitable share of the country’s oil wealth.

Ahmadinejad’s provincialism is another aspect of his populist appeal. Save for a brief trip to Austria many years ago, Ahmadinejad had not traveled outside of Iran before becoming president. (In this respect, as well as others, he bears striking resemblance to President George W. Bush. According to a popular joke in Iran, there are three things Bush and Ahmadinejad share: both came to power in contested elections, both talk to God, and neither speaks English.) His provincialism has begotten an arrogant swagger and a disdain not just for the West but also for Iranians who know the West or advocate closer ties with it. Compounding his willful insolence is his belief that God has chosen him to perform His will and that a divine force protects him. After returning from his second U.N. trip last year, he told a cleric that during his speech in the General Assembly he was protected by a sacred halo of light. He also recounted how God, to spite America, had fixed the unblinking eyes of all the world’s leaders on Ahmadinejad. While his critics posted a secret tape of this conversation on the Internet (where for months it was a favorite), supporters speak of his “genius,” his “divine wisdom,” and his role as “the miracle of the third millennium.” When he wrote his infamously puzzling, wide-ranging letter to President Bush in May 2006—about history and international affairs, the failure of “liberalism and Western-style democracy” and the centrality of God in global aspirations, and the teachings of the great prophets, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed—his admirers spoke of it as a divinely inspired text, something to be studied in every high school in Iran.

By the time Ahmadinejad made his third trip to the U.N., in September 2007, another key component of his political vision had become the subject of considerable inquiry and criticism, particularly inside Iran. One of Ahmadinejad’s first acts as president was to have the cabinet sign a covenant with the Mahdi, the twelfth Imam in Iranian Shi’ism, its missing messiah. Iranian Shias are referred to as twelvers; unlike other Shias they believe that there have been twelve Imams, all male descendants of the first Imam, Ali, and his wife, Fateme, daughter of the prophet Mohammad. They also believe that the twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, has gone into hiding, or occultation. This occultation of the twelfth Imam will end with the return of the Mahdi, who will establish a perfectly just Islamic society in a world plunged in chaos and war, laying the basis for the Day of the Resurrection.

Some Hadith—words or deeds attributed to the prophet and his progeny, and next to the Qur’an considered the most important source of Islamic jurisprudence—indicate that the missing messiah will one day emerge from the well at Chamkaran. For centuries Chamkaran (sometimes called Jamkaran) was a dry well and a derelict mosque some hundred miles outside Tehran. When Ahmadinejad came to power, he spent millions from the public coffers to build roads and tourist facilities to facilitate visits to Chamkaran, and successfully turned it into a popular pilgrimage site. He also substantially increased funding for an institute, in the city of Qom, whose mission is to search the sacred texts of Shi’ism for hints about signs of the twelfth Imam’s return. Ahmadinejad has often said that the purpose of his presidency is to help expedite the return of the messiah. Many leading Iranian clergy have recently criticized this aspect of Ahmadinejad’s politics, as well as the corresponding surge of claims by people (including public figures) to have “seen” or “contacted” the twelfth Imam.

* * *

It is a measure of Ahmadinejad’s Machiavellian guile, the paradoxical charisma of his anti-hero persona, and the effectiveness of his populist anti-corruption campaign that in his first months in office he claimed a mandate and amassed more power than even Khatami, who had won two landslide victories. After all, the Iranian Constitution contains serious obstacles to presidential accumulation of power. Moreover, Ahmadinejad won the 2005 election only after a hotly contested election mired in allegations of foul play.

But Ahmadinejad’s meteoric rise was soon followed by a no less spectacular fall from grace. One problem was that Ayatollah Khamenei and other leaders of the Islamic Republic came quickly to see that Ahmadinejad and his verbal outbursts were becoming a serious liability. Nothing was more emblematic of this problem than his vocal anti-Semitism, which, like much else in his vision, was not acquired casually but has roots in his experiences during the early days of the revolution.

Soon after the creation of the Islamic Republic, a series of lectures and discussions were held in Tehran led by a stridently conservative cleric, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, and a philosophy professor named Ahmad Fardid. A student of German philosophy and a disciple of Heidegger, Fardid believed that Freemasons and Jews have for the past century conspired together to dominate the world. When Ayatollah Khomeini won power Fardid abandoned his sycophantic royalism and became not just a devout Moslem, but a passionate advocate of the rule of mullahs as the necessary and anointed prelude to the return of the Hidden Messiah. Together with Mesbah-Yazdi—Ahmadinejad’s religious mentor—Fardid forged key elements of an Islamic pseudo-fascist ideology founded on a sour brew of anti-Semitism, Heideggerian philosophy, and Khomeini’s theory of the guardianship of the jurist.

Whatever their sources, Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic comments were—according to a widely held view in Iran—a key reason for the two U.N. resolutions against Iran.

His domestic policies have been comparably disastrous. For much of the past quarter of a century, the Islamic Republic of Iran—having emerged from the authoritarianism of the Pahlavi dynasty—faced a number of fundamental choices about basic social and economic organization: state planning vs. market coordination; private property vs. public ownership; technocracy vs. piety as a measure of public service; women as subordinate vs. women as equal citizens; export of revolution vs. consolidation of power at home; nuclear power and a full fuel cycle vs. accommodating the international community; fundamentalism vs. acceptance of eclectic new ideas and changing interpretations of the canon; and finally, East vs. West.

In navigating these positions, Ahmadinejad has often embraced ideas and practices that are now widely rejected elsewhere. He has shown little affection for the private sector, advocates statism and a more highly planned economy, and has all but destroyed private banking in Iran. He initially defended some rights for women, such as their ability to watch soccer games at public stadiums, but backed off in the face of stiff opposition from the traditional clergy. And although he has been consistent in his advocacy for the poor—he increased the minimum wage by sixty percent and ordered the establishment of a “Love Fund” to help poor young men defray the cost of marriage—his policies often seem ill-conceived. His casual comment that the stock market is a form of gambling and should be banned led to a massive sell off and a steep fall in stock prices. He has a penchant for throwing money at any problem. One policy, for example, gave low-interest loans to small businesses willing to hire new employees, in an attempt to create jobs and stem inflationary pressures. But because his administration failed to exercise oversight, the loans were used by employers for purposes other than job creation. According to some members of parliament, similar failures of oversight explain the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars of governmental funds. Ahmadinejad’s government has not only spent the entire windfall revenue from oil price increases, but he nearly depleted the currency fund set up to protect the government when the price of oil falls. As always the poor—now a quarter of the country’s population—bear the brunt of these disastrous inflationary policies.

In international relations, Ahmadinejad’s faltering program has had three key components. The first is the idea of exporting the Islamic Revolution and creating a “Shia revolutionary arc” in the Muslim world. Like Trotsky, who rejected the idea of socialism in one country, Ahmadinejad believes that Iran’s Islamic Revolution will survive only if it helps lead other Muslims in the fight against a weak and declining West. In recent months, he has talked more ambitiously about Muslims generally, and not only about Shias.

The second component of his program is the idea that the Islamic regime can maintain its dignity and achieve its goals only if it stands firm on plans for a nuclear weapons program. For Ahmadinejad, Khatami and his chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, Rouhani, committed treason when they agreed to suspend the nuclear program. A few days after Iran announced that it had enriched uranium successfully, Ahmadinejad and his allies declared that “the West can do nothing,” adding that Iran must push forward aggressively with all aspects of the program. Shortly after Putin’s recent and historic visit to Iran, Ahmadinejad made two incredible claims in a televised interview: first, that Iran has won the public-opinion battle around the world over the legitimacy of its nuclear program, and that the West might soon give up its opposition to Iran’s nuclear program; and second, still more incredibly, that “Iran is now one of the nine nuclear powers in the world” and that the other eight must begin to share their global power with Iran.

The third component of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy is intimately linked with the second, and is referred to by the Iranian policy establishment as the “Asia Look.” According to this notion, Iran’s future no longer rests with the declining West but with the ascendant East—particularly China and India. Multi-billion-dollar oil and gas agreements with both countries, and negotiations for the construction of a new pipeline connecting Iran to India through Pakistan and eventually to China, would allow Iran to have a rapidly growing market for the country’s oil and gas. Moreover, both China and India have nuclear technologies they could share with Iran and, based on their past behavior, neither is likely to “meddle” in Iranian domestic affairs, particularly on issues of human rights and democracy. Ahmadinejad is further convinced that Russia (with its new, more muscular foreign policy and its desire to embarrass the United States) and China (with its insatiable appetite for energy) would never allow the passage of a U.N. resolution against Iran.

* * *

The failure of nearly every aspect of Ahmadinejad’s program—including his failure to fight corruption or improve the economic plight of the poor—has caused his domestic popularity to decline sharply. In a poll conducted in late September, 56 percent of those who had voted for him in the last election declared they would not vote for him again. When we remember that only sixty percent of eligible voters participated in the last presidential election and that Ahmadinejad won barely more than fifty percent of the votes, his precarious political situation at home becomes clear. On the international front, the U.N. passed two resolutions against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, with Chinese and Russian support. Ahmadinejad’s cavalier response to the U.N. resolutions, dismissing them as “nothing more than a worthless piece of paper,” brought him an avalanche of criticism—even from the regime’s strongest supporters. Furthermore, Russia decided to delay completion of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, and the Sunni states are beginning to unite against Shia Iran.

But the most important cause of Ahmadinejad’s decline has been the near breakdown of the Iranian economy. In spite of record earnings from oil, there has been massive capital flight, a shrinking private sector, a banking crisis, and an increase in oil dependency and subsidies paid by the regime. The oil sector itself is facing serious structural problems due to decaying infrastructure. If trends persist, and Iran cannot attract an estimated six hundred billion dollars of investment in the oil industry, Iranian oil exports may collapse completely within a decade. With unemployment in double digits, the regime is now facing stagflation—high inflation rates and rapidly rising prices—as well as a depression-like “recession.”

Ahmadinejad recently has been facing hostile crowds at college campuses and mounting parliamentary criticism. In the past year Ahmadinejad tried to insure himself against this rising opposition by consolidating his relationship with the Revolutionary Guards with multi-billion-dollar no-bid contracts—in one case, an eleven-billion-dollar contract—to the Guards and their companies. The Guards are an economic juggernaut, active in nearly every aspect of the economy. But even these bribes have not silenced all of the Revolutionary Guard commanders. A few have publicly criticized Ahmadinejad and his policies, believing that he is jeopardizing the future of the regime. The website Baztab, close to Mohsen Rezai, who was for eighteen years the chief commander of the Revolutionary Guards, has become increasingly and openly critical of Ahmadinejad. In late September, Ahmadinejad closed the website down.

Ironically, Ahmadinejad and his rhetoric of confrontation—his tendency to taunt the United States and Israel with boastful threats about terrorists (“martyrdom seekers,” in his parlance)—no less than his dismissals of any possibility of U.S. invasion, does nothing but enable those in Washington who have for years tried to push the United States into a war with Iran. With about a third of the U.S. Navy patrolling the waters off the Iranian coast, and with more than 150,000 U.S. soldiers standing nose to nose with Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, chances increase that a “mistake” will spark a full-fledged war. In recent months Ahmadinejad and his cabal of radical Revolutionary Guards commanders have engaged, in their own words, in a “show of force” by sending Iranian drones over U.S. ships and, in one case, sending a diver to place a sticker with the logo of the Revolutionary Guards on the hull of an American destroyer.

Even more dangerous is the fact that Bush’s hyperbole, including talk of a third world war, only makes a military confrontation with Iran more likely. And a military confrontation with the United States or Israel would be a god-sent gift for Ahmadinejad. With his popularity plummeting and the economy in decline, only an American or Israeli attack on Iran can help Ahmadinejad and his radical allies consolidate power and save his presidency.

In truth the only solution to the “Iran Problem”—from the nuclear question to Iran’s regional support for Islamist groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah—is for the century-old dream of democracy to become a reality. Ahmadinejad is fully aware of this danger and has done everything to forestall democratic change. Since taking office, he has closed virtually every opposition paper, stepped up censorship of films and books, attempted to dismantle the student movement and suppress the embryonic labor union movement, and tried to intimidate Iranian women who were beginning to find a public voice.

* * *

The possibility of democracy in Iran is today a subject of considerable controversy. Skeptics point to the increasing financial muscle of the regime (through skyrocketing oil prices, verging on a hundred dollars per barrel); the Bush administration’s disastrous policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East in general; and the failure of democratic forces in Iran to develop a cogent alternative. And they conclude that the dream of democracy in Iran is dead. Young Iranians, these skeptics say, have become nothing short of Nietzsche’s “Last Man”—apolitical, amoral, demoralized, selfish, and hedonistic. The opium and heroin pandemic in Iran—with an estimated seven million addicts—is yet another indication of the final defeat of democracy’s promise.

But this skepticism is by no means universally shared. Akbar Ganji, Iran’s leading dissident, has long placed his hope for democracy on a mass movement of civil disobedience, with individual acts of heroism and defiance gradually emboldening a disgruntled but terrorized populace into newly wakeful action. That action, he argues, must be nonviolent: genesis is destiny, and violent revolutions beget violent dictatorships. Mass civil disobedience will not only help avert a despotic new regime but will also serve as a smithy, forging responsible, educated, democratic citizens, aware of their rights and responsibilities.

Said Hajjarian has advanced a second model of transition. Like Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB before becoming general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Hajjarian was a key element of the Islamic regime’s intelligence apparatus; and in Iran, as in the former Soviet Union, the intelligence agencies have their fingers on the political pulse. Hajjarian considers the idea of the path to democracy through civil disobedience na¯Øve in a clerically dominated Iran. The Iranian regime not only has coercive power at its disposal, but ideological conviction and a steely determination to destroy the democratic movement. For Hajjarian, political salvation lies only in gradually chipping away at the oppressive machinery of the clergy and at Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih. In a now famous formulation, he once envisioned “pressure from below, bickering at the top.” Only by gradually grabbing more positions of power, Hajjarian argues, and provoking more bickering among despots can reformers bring democracy to Iran. The current movement in Iran to collect one million signatures in support of equality for women under the law, as well as efforts by Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to improve the judiciary, by a hitherto suppressed labor movement to win better pay and a right to organize, and by the defiant student movement are all arguably parts of this movement to “democratize” the regime from within. As promising as all that sounds, however, after the failure of the eight-year Khatami presidency the Hajjarian model seems to have lost much of its luster.

More recently, a third model for democratic transition has found currency among a small number of activists, particularly in the Diaspora. They place their hopes in an improbable decision by the regime in Tehran to hold a free and fair election to decide its own future.

None of these models holds much promise of near-term success. But the case for democracy in Iran is now economic and not only political. The only solution to Iran’s dire economic problems is a large infusion of foreign resources, and only democracy can ensure the stability required for such large investments and for a return of the massive intellectual and financial capital in the hands of the Iranian Diaspora. This capital is now estimated to be worth almost a trillion dollars. If democracy is an economic and political exigency, and if the existing models have not yet produced encouraging results, what form can a democratic transition take?

The regime in Iran today is deeply divided, and tensions between different factions have recently intensified. Moreover, of the two-dozen clerics who have dominated Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution, the youngest are septuagenarians. The “spiritual leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, is known to suffer from cancer, and there is no clear heir apparent to his mantle. Many of the younger clerics in Iran, particularly among the advocates of Ayatollah Sistani’s quietist version of Shi’ism, have been more openly critical of the regime’s interpretation of Shi’ism. According to the quietist school, an Islamic government is a government of god on earth; obeying its words and commands is incumbent on all citizens and leaves no room for error. Until the “return” of the twelfth Imam, then, no such government can be created. In the meantime, according to Ayatollah Sistani and others in this school, the duty of the clergy is simply to supervise the moral life of the flock. This view is in direct conflict with Ayatollah Khomeini’s activist version of Shi’ism, which holds that the clergy can and must seize power any time the opportunity avails itself.

An even larger number of those working with the regime, particularly among the thousands of often-Western-educated mid-level managers, are increasingly aware that the status quo is untenable. As the economy continues to falter, and as radicals like Ahmadinejad seek more stringent enforcement of Islamic laws—by, for example, charging more than 160,000 women in the past two months of being insufficiently veiled—it is easy to imagine the emergence of a grand coalition, consisting of technocrats within and outside the regime, disgruntled reformists, quietist clerics, members of the Iranian private sector, women demanding equality, students, democratic parties, and labor unions, all willing to compromise in favor of a better society. That coalition, joined by Iran’s civil society organizations and even members of the Diaspora, could come together on a program of building a more democratic republic, free of the despotic power of the guardian-jurist. Prudent U.S. policy—principled, unconditional negotiations with the regime in Tehran on all outstanding issues, and continuing insistence on the democratic and human rights of the Iranian people—can help expedite the formation of such a coalition. An offer of unconditional negotiations would, if accepted, bring about a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations and improve the political capital of those within the regime who have been advocating such rapprochement. If such an offer is rejected, it is only likely to strengthen tensions within the regime, and such increased tensions can only help democratic forces. Rejection of such an offer is also likely to further anger the Iranian middle classes, who have been advocating normalized relations with the world. Attacking Iran, or even empty saber rattling, can only strengthen the radicals’ hold on a threatened citizenry.

A strategy in Iran that forges democracy through a politics from below would have ramifications throughout the Middle East. Radical Islam embraces a vision of theocratic rule founded on revealed truth: this project is as much a challenge to China and India, Brazil and Mexico, Turkey and Egypt, as it is to the United States. It is a challenge to modernity itself, not simply the West. Only a large, active coalition of the silent majority of Muslims—both Shia and Sunni, keen on a spiritual reading of Islam—can defeat it, and create an Iranian democracy genuinely worthy of the name.


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About the Author

Abbas Milani is Hamid and Christian Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of, most recently, Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran.

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R. Nicholas Burns,
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Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani,
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