By the time this appears in print, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be packing his belongings to leave the “Presidential Palace” after eight years.
Well, the phrase “Presidential Palace” may be an exaggeration. Located on the leafy Pasteur Street in central Tehran, the building is a medium-sized villa that once belonged to Princess Shams, the late Shah’s sister. In 1965, the government bought it for USD 38,000 and turned it into a residence for Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, who had no home in Tehran. Over my years as a visitor to the villa, I became aware of the shortcomings of its design and facilities, although its small Persian garden was a delight.
When the mullahs seized power, they assigned the building to their prime minister. But, in 1988, they housed their president there after abolishing the office of prime minister. Was there symbolism in the move? Did they want to show that the title of president did not mean that the man bearing it was anything more than a prime minister?
However, those who became president of Iran in the years since have thought otherwise, and have paid a price for their error. The first, Abol-Hassan Banisadr, was forced to flee the country in disguise aboard a hijacked jetliner. The second, Muhammad-Ali Raja’i, was blown to smithereens in an explosion. Ali Khamenei, the third president, survived an assassination attempt but had his wings publicly clipped by Khomeini. The fourth was Ali-Akbar Bahremani, using the nom de guerre Hashemi Rafsanjani. A master of the “black arts” of politics, he managed to destroy rivals, using Khamenei—who had by that time been promoted to the office of supreme leader—as a facade.
What Rafsanjani didn’t know was that narrowing down the regime’s support base could benefit Khamenei, who would use his increased power to cut his erstwhile mentor down to size. The fifth president, Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, was propelled into the post by Rafsanjani. Soon, however, Khamenei showed him who the “big cheese” in Iran was. Khatami became the smiling face of the regime, traveling around the world talking of Hobbes and Hegel while government goons murdered dissidents in Tehran.
Seen in the context of this portrait gallery, Ahmadinejad is an outsider.
He was the first president to be neither a mullah nor the son or grandson of a mullah. He was the child of a rural family that migrated to Tehran to join the urban working class, and whose prospects improved under the shah. Ahmadinejad’s father, a blacksmith, earned enough to secure university education for his children. He was able to buy a house in Narmak, a suburb designed and built by the French for the working classes, but now a classy part of the metropolis.
Ahmadinejad was also the first president to hold a PhD, and insisted on being called “doctor.” To Iranians, who are suckers for titles, that sounded great.
Another first for Ahmadinejad was that he had managerial experience at various levels. The son of an ayatollah, Banisadr had been a life-long student before becoming president, never having done a day’s work. Raja’i had been a part-time schoolteacher. Before the revolution, Khamenei had fluttered from one thing to another to avoid regular employment. He had not even completed his theological course. Rafsanjani had been involved in building contracts in a remote region, but never in a major capacity. Khatami’s work experience before the revolution consisted of a spell in a travel agency.
There was yet another difference. Ahmadinejad had a big mouth and said aloud what his predecessors thought in silence. His refusal to practice taqiyeh (dissimulation) and kitman (dissemblance) was refreshing. With him, it was a case of “what you see is what you get.” He didn’t try to pretend that the Islamic Republic was a democracy, or that its policies were determined by the exercise of reason.
More importantly, perhaps, he tried, though not successfully, to write the mullahs out of the political picture. He claimed that he received direct “inspiration” from the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi many Shi’ites expect to come at the end of time. To underline his Mahdi connection, Ahmadinejad often visited Jamkoran, a village near Qom where the Hidden Imam is supposed to operate a communications channel through a well in a mosque. None of Ahmadinejad’s predecessors went there, pooh-poohing the set-up as sham. Ahmadinejad’s entourage claimed he was one of the “Pegs” (Owtad), the 36 pious men who, in the Mahdi’s absence, “prevent the world from falling”.
Yet another difference was Ahmadinejad’s provincial tours to establish contact with the poorest segments of society. In the last two years of his tenure, he had to curtail the tours because of the increasingly hostile reception he encountered on the ground. But in the early years he did foster a dialogue with the downtrodden.
Ahmadinejad’s checkered relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was also interesting. He came to power with IRGC support and filled his first Cabinets with military figures. His first major privatization program, worth USD 18 billion, was designed to make IRGC commanders even richer. However, in his second term, Ahmadinejad adopted a hostile attitude toward IRGC, reducing its share of public sector contracts from 13 to 8 percent.
In the final analysis, however, Ahmadinejad’s presidency was a disappointment to many, including those who had supported him. His administration was not as corrupt as that of Rafsanjani, for example. Nor did he preside over mass arrests and mass executions, as did his predecessors. However, his economic policy was dicey, to say the least, and his social and cultural policies were marked by major errors. His foreign policy was veritable disaster, making Iran more isolated and exposed to the threat of war than any other time since the mullahs seized power.
Surprising though this may be, Ahmadinejad continues to have a support base among radical Islamo-nationalists who resent the domination of the country by the mullahs and the IRGC and wish to promote a new generation of younger revolutionaries.
By all accounts, Ahmadinejad does not intend to fade into oblivion. But what will he do?