With Cuba’s Fidel Castro out of the picture, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic sees himself as the natural leader of the left on the global scene. He made that ambition clear last week when he addressed a conference of foreign ministers from the 120 nations that form the Nonaligned Movement. In a passionate address, he called for the creation of a “Front for Peace and Justice”, recalling a similar outfit created by Josef Stalin in the late 1940s.
And, yet, Ahmadinejad’s rivals within the Khomeinist establishment have always tried to present him as an enemy of the left and a champion of the conservative right. So, where is Ahmadinejad’s place on the political spectrum? Which label would best describe a man accused by critics of leading the Islamic Republic to the brink of war?
A closer look at Ahmadinejad’s background, temperament and politics would show that, far from being a conservative, he is, in fact, a radical political leader with a revolutionary agenda.
Most English dictionaries offer this definition for the term conservative: “Tending or disposed to maintain existing views, marked by moderation and caution.” The Persian dictionary’s definition is similar: a “conservative” is a person who “works to preserve existing realities with reference to tradition and moderation.”
Judged by such definitions, Ahmadinejad cannot be regarded a conservative. He does not tend to “maintain existing views” and is certainly not “marked by moderation and caution.” His policies are not “shaped by tradition and moderation.” He does not want to “conserve” but to change.
Ahmadinejad is a radical revolutionary with a political vocabulary largely borrowed from the left. He joined an underground student group at the age of 17. Two years later he was a leadership figure in the student organization that helped bring Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini to power. He spent the next two decades of his life serving the Khomeinist revolution in various fields, including a stint at the eight-year war against Iraq. As Governor of the province of Ardebil and, later, as Mayor of Tehran he was anything but conservative. He attacked vested interests and upset the status quo.
In 2005, Ahmadinejad based his presidential bid on a leftist revolutionary platform. It was his opponent Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman-cum-mullah, who represented the conservative faction. Ahmadinejad was the challenger, the candidate of radical change, promising to stop the gravy train, to end corruption, and launch the biggest redistribution of income and wealth in Iranian history.
The purges that Ahmadinejad carried in his first two years as president were anything but “conservative”. The Islamic Republic had not witnessed such a purge of its elite for a quarter of a century. Thousands of status quo figures lost their positions and privileges as senior bureaucrats, ministers, governors, ambassadors, military commanders and CEOs of public corporations.
True, Ahmadinejad has not succeeded in implementing his promise of redistribution. Nevertheless, he has channeled billions of dollars into thousands of small projects that, while feeding the flames of inflation, have diverted part of the nation’s income from the very rich to the very poor.
Ahmadinejad’s policies in other domains have been equally radical. He has resumed uranium enrichment and put the nuclear programme into high gear with the clear aim of giving Iran full scientific and technological mastery in the nuclear field. If he succeeds, the Islamic Republic will have the technological, scientific and industrial base needed to become a full nuclear power.
In broader foreign policy terms, Ahmadinejad has been equally revolutionary. He is determined to challenge American leadership of the global system wherever possible by seeking allies all over the world. He has already forged alliances with leftist leaders in Latin America and won the leadership of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM). Making it clear that he does not accept the status quo in the Middle East, as any conservatives would, Ahmadinejad has launched a determined drive for assuming regional leadership. He has also made it clear that “wiping Israel off the map” is a strategic goal of the Islamic Republic. In other words, he does not want to “conserve” the present situation in the Middle East in which Israel is the only nuclear power. He wants to change it radically, as any revolutionary would.
Many commentators base their analysis of the erratic behavior of the Islamic Republic on the hypothesis of a power struggle between two rival factions. This is correct. The ruling establishment is divided into a dozen or more trends that often coalesce into two big rival factions. The problem is that commentators often misidentify the two factions. In reality, the conservative faction opposes Ahmadinejad while the radical revolutionary faction supports him.
Currently, the conservative faction is led by Rafsanjani, assisted by protégés such as former President Muhammad Khatami. This faction hopes to “conserve” the status quo created by three decades of Khomeinist rule. It hopes to preserve and, when possible, extend its position and privileges. It no longer dreams of “exporting” the Khomeinist revolution and does not wish to challenge the global system. All that it wants is a stool at the global banquet table.
The “conservative” faction is ready to use “taqiyyeh”, the tradition of dissimulation, and fudge the nuclear issue. It dismisses Ahmadinejad’s policy of “economic self-sufficiency” as sheer lunacy.
However, as long as decision-making in Iran is limited to the Khomeinist establishment, Ahmadinejad’s radical revolutionary message has a better chance of winning. Khomeinism is a revolutionary ideology whose aim is to conquer the world, thus accelerating the return of the “Hidden Imam”.
Ahmadinejad has succeeded in giving a moribund revolution a second life. He has re-energized Khomeinist militants who had started to lose faith in a revolution that had created a new privileged class and plunged many more Iranians into greater poverty.
The United States and its allies would be wrong to base their Iran policy on the assumption that people like Rafsanjani and/or Khatami could tame the Khomeinist revolution into abandoning its strategic goals. If the US and its allies wish to make a deal with the Islamic Republic they should address the faction that best represents the regime’s radical revolutionary base , that is to say the faction represented by Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad is as much on the left as Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, the Castro brothers in Cuba, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Rafael Corea in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Senator Barack Obama, the Democrat Party’s presumptive nominee in this year’s US presidential election understood this fact when he announced that he was ready to hold direct and unconditional talks with Ahmadinejad. If you intend to surrender, you had better pick the man who forced you to surrender in the first place. It would make no sense to surrender to those who do not even control their own political base.