They now rejoice once more, but this time to celebrate Ahmadinejad’s departure, not his arrival. His presidency officially ends on August 3, when Hassan Rouhani will be sworn in as his successor. Eight years of Ahmadinejad have come to an end. So, as his era draws to a close, what kind of president was he, and what will his legacy be for Iran?
Perhaps the best thing one can say about Ahmadinejad is that he made clear who he was from the start—and those early months of his presidency were critical to everything that followed. Just a few weeks after he took office, on September 17, 2005, he set the tone for his administration with a speech at the UN General Assembly. To the inward despair of the listening European and American diplomats, he railed against Western powers and made distasteful remarks about the 9/11 attacks on the US.
His worldview, it became plain, descended directly from the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Khomeini, Ahmadinejad saw an iniquitous world in thrall to the Western powers that ran it; this attitude was the Islamic Republic at its most atavistic and it informed Iranian policy throughout his time as president.
And it was not just rhetorical change he brought. Signaling that he was going to overhaul Iran’s foreign policy, an immediate purge of sorts took place as Iranian diplomats across the world were replaced, en masse, with those more in tune with the new (or, rather, old) orthodoxy. Most importantly, his first act in the nuclear sphere was to appoint conservative Ali Larijani to replace Hassan Rouhani (who was deemed responsible for “frightened” nuclear negotiations) as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and thus chief nuclear negotiator. A “popular and fundamentalist government,” Ahmadinejad declared, would solve Iran’s problems.
Populism and defiance were to be the watchwords of Ahmadinejad’s presidency and were the motifs that came to dominate almost all his actions—especially concerning the nuclear program. His arrival had coincided with a restart of uranium enrichment at Iran’s Natanz plant, and Ahmadinejad was to oversee an acceleration of enrichment activities that led, in April 2006, to Iran successfully enriching uranium to 3.5 percent, the level required for the nuclear fuel used to power reactors. A triumphant Ahmadinejad duly pronounced his country a “nuclear state.”
It was in this area that Ahmadinejad came closest to achieving success. He was the greatest proponent of what we might term “nuclear populism” as he sought to rally people to the regime’s cause by claiming that the West, especially the US and Britain, was determined to ‘keep Iran down’ by blocking its nuclear progress, in the finest traditions of Western imperialism. And for a time it worked. President George W. Bush’s threatening rhetoric of “regime change” was a godsend to Ahmadinejad and those around him, who urged Iranians to unite in the face of a self-confessed external enemy.
But all this came at a considerable cost. Before Ahmadinejad’s arrival Iran had managed to avoid sanctions. Since he became president, Iran’s continuing enrichment and diplomatic intransigence has brought several rounds of UN sanctions and a host of unilateral US and EU sanctions that have crippled the economy, increased social unrest and fractured its political elite. None of this seemed to bother the president, however, who carried imperturbably onwards, describing sanctions as nothing more than a “used handkerchief that should be thrown in the dustbin” and “not capable of hurting Iranians”—the latter a patent untruth. Iran today is far weaker than it was in 2005 due to the sanctions, and much of the blame rests with Ahmadinejad personally.
Indeed, he seemed almost unaware of diplomatic norms as he spoke almost exclusively in the language of defiance and confrontation. For Ahmadinejad, it seemed that the raison d’être of the Islamic Republic was “resistance,” a Khomeinist ideological trope that damaged Iran’s relations with much of the world. That “resistance” would also lead to perhaps his most egregious mistake: rebuffing US overtures for détente at the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term, which had seen Condoleezza Rice and Nick Burns take the helm at the State Department with a desire to mend US–Iranian relations. At a joint press conference on June 1, 2006, in Vienna, Burns and Rice offered direct, bilateral negotiations to the Iranian government for the first time in almost thirty years. As Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Larijani was for the proposal, but the offer was problematic for Ahmadinejad, who had staked so much of his political capital on resisting the “Great Satan.” Burns and Rice waited for Larijani in New York, but he never showed up—Ahmadinejad had won the battle in Tehran, a tragedy for both the US and Iran.
Equally damaging for Iran was the president’s hostile rhetoric to Israel. Here, Ahmadinejad succeeded only in hardening Israel’s already-hawkish position toward Iran’s nuclear program. His description of Israel as a “tumor” to be “wiped off the map” and of the Holocaust as a “myth” caused understandable consternation amongst the Israelis. Tel Aviv had described Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat for years and Ahmadinejad’s election only made the perceived threat more immediate. Given the program’s progress, Israeli hardliners argued that the danger had grown, not receded. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert labeled Ahmadinejad a “psychopath” who talked like Hitler and assured the Israeli electorate that Iran would never get a nuclear bomb.
Ahmadinejad’s acceleration of Iran’s nuclear activities may have been highly provocative, but at least it brought tangible technological results. His threatening words only gave hardliners in Israel and the US the ammunition they needed to increase pressure on Iran, bringing more sanctions and increasing the prospect of military action against it.
But perhaps his lowest ebb (and there is stiff competition for this prize) came with his second “election” in 2009. His main challenger, former prime minister Mir Hussein Mousavi, was widely thought to have won the popular vote—the Iranian people were sick of Ahmadinejad—but fraudulent vote counting and ballot rigging handed him the election anyway. Iranians took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands, and were brutally suppressed by the regime. The world heaped yet more condemnation on Iran and the regime found itself even more isolated.
And it has been hemorrhaging legitimacy ever since—especially as Iran’s economic situation has worsened. People now shout “Death to the Dictator” from Tehran rooftops, as they once did under the Shah. Meanwhile, men like Hashemi Rafsanjani regularly attack the regime, accusing it of bringing the world’s wrath down on Iran and weakening the country. And the attacks are valid.
Missed opportunities, increasing Iranian isolation, international sanctions, a worsening Iranian economy, an increase of tensions with Israel and the US and a loss of governmental legitimacy: these are the legacies of Ahmadinejad’s tenure as president. He was a disaster for Iran.
The Iranian people need and deserve a president who can start to undo some of the considerable and pervasive damage he caused. In voting for Hassan Rouhani, the Iranians have shown they understand the need for change and actively seek it—just as they did four years ago, when they voted for Mousavi. Rouhani has the greatest thing a politician can have: a popular mandate for change. He must make sure that he uses it.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.