Who Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and What Is He Really After?

By Berman, Ilan | USA TODAY, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Who Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and What Is He Really After?


Berman, Ilan, USA TODAY


WHO IS MAHMOUD Ahmadinejad? Before his meteoric rise to power in the summer of 2005, Iran's ultraconservative president was a relative political unknown. Since taking office, however, the 50-year-old Ahmadinejad has done much to demonstrate his radical credentials. He has ratcheted up the Islamic Republic's hostile rhetoric toward Israel and the U.S. while his government systematically has rolled back domestic freedoms and deepened its control over Iranian society. Moreover, under his direction, the Islamic Republic has accelerated its very public march toward an atomic capability.

Yet, much remains unknown about Iran's president. What drives Ahmadinejad's extremist world view? Is he simply a pawn of the country's Supreme Leader, or the representative of a separate interest group competing for power in Tehran? As the current crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions continues to deepen, the answers to these questions have become crucial for American policymakers.

Ahmadinejad's harsh, uncompromising statements have led many to label him as unsophisticated, but Iran's president is no political novice. Rather, he is a seasoned strategic operator with impeccable revolutionary credentials. As a member of the radical "Office for Strengthening Unity" during the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad played a major role in planning and executing the 1980 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Subsequently, he became a commander in the Pasdaran, the feared clerical army created by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to serve as the "shock troops" of the Islamic Republic. In that capacity, Ahmadinejad served as an instructor for the Basij, the regime's fanatical domestic militia, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. Afterward, he served as the governor of Ardebil province, and as an organizer of Ansar-e Hezbollah, the most notorious of Iran's guruh-i fishar (vigilante or "pressure" groups), until eventually becoming mayor of Tehran in 2003.

Ahmadinejad's ascendance is a reflection of the rising power of the Pasdaran in Iranian politics. Indeed, Iran's clerical army has been the principal beneficiary of the conservative reentrenchment that has taken place over the past several years. In what widely was seen as a backlash against the failed policies of Pres. Mohammad Khatami, the February 2004 elections for Iran's parliament (majles) resulted in a rout for Iran's "reformist" camp, swinging no fewer than 130 seats to conservatives. Additional gains--such as the Pasdaran's assumption of control over the country's media sector in May 2004 with the appointment of a former commander, Ezatullah Zarghami, to the post of the Islamic Republic's national press and media chief--further have solidified conservative influence over Iran's political discourse. Close to one-third of Iran's 290 parliamentary deputies now have links to Iran's military complex, and 42 directly are affiliated with the Pasdaran.

This new crop of conservatives is distinct from other nodes of regime power in the Islamic Republic. Its members overwhelmingly are military strategists and tacticians, rather than professional clerics. As such, they generally lack the political experience of Iran's clerical establishment (including the ability to navigate international crises safely). By the same token, this political elite is far less practiced in the language of taqiyyah (obfuscation) and kitman (dissimulation) that routinely is used by Iran's clerical class in their diplomatic dealings. Simply put, Ahmadinejad and his ilk say what they mean and mean what they say, and do so to a much greater degree than Iranian leaders have in the past when interacting with the outside world.

The growing power of the Pasdaran has been mirrored by a concerted effort to revive the revolutionary principles espoused by its creator and inspiration, the Ayatollah Khomeini. One of Ahmadinejad's first public acts following his presidential victory was to visit Khomeini's tomb to demonstrate his continuing devotion to the founder of the Islamic Republic. …

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