Unheralded president shakes up Iran, world

Ahmadinejad defies West, aids militant cause in homeland

Sept. 15, 2006

BY CHRISTINE SPOLAR/Tribune foreign correspondent

TEHRAN - For much of his first year in office, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a target of wisecracks.

Small, slight, with a forever-furrowed brow, he was taunted as simply "Mahmoud" by Iran's text-messaging crowd, the society's educated and young who tried to laugh off the fundamentalist's unexpected rise from Tehran mayor to Iran's highest elected official in 2005.

His fealty to Iran's ruling clerics was deemed fair game. So was his unkempt hair and downscale dress. Ahmadinejad's penchant for gustily demanding respect from President Bush or deriding Western policy in the Middle East kept the cell phone class buzzing.

Not a lot of people are laughing these days.

Ahmadinejad has embarked on a second year in office as the face of revolution renewed in Iran. As he prepares to visit the United Nations next week, one major achievement is clear: He has framed Iran's controversial nuclear program as a national cause for the Islamic republic, while turning the West's attempts to block it into a reason for wrath against America.

He also has reopened old wounds in the region, seizing on Israel, a U.S. ally in the Middle East, as an enemy of all Muslims and ridiculing U.S. and British influence in the region and the bedeviled war in Iraq.

Less apparent to outsiders has been Ahmadinejad's role in shifting fortunes within Iran's power base. The energetic president, who crisscrosses this country of 68 million people for rallies and religious gatherings, is widely seen as helping Iran's most militant elements.

Economists, politicians, analysts and journalists describe Ahmadinejad's first year as a time of opportunity for radical loyalists. A no-bid contract worth $8 billion for developing a gas field in South Pars in the Persian Gulf went to associates linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a base of Ahmadinejad support, they said.

Earlier this month, Ahmadinejad urged students to cleanse their schools of liberal and secular influences. The warning followed the ouster of secular professors in November and March--all replaced by conservatives--and the naming of the first cleric to head Tehran University.

Satellite dishes seized

A few weeks ago, authorities began a roundup of satellite dishes in Tehran. In the past few days, the government closed the largest reformist daily, Shargh, and three monthly journals because of disputes over political coverage.

Ahmadinejad, just shy of 50, is working to infuse the regime with new blood, analysts said, and to shore up a political apparatus of the most conservative kind to serve the government.

"He is an exception among presidents," said Mohammed Atrianfar, a director at Shargh, the banned daily. "He is the only president that the leadership has promoted and supported ... and he, in one year, has undone whatever was accomplished, 27 years after the revolution, to help relations with the international community."

Understanding political calculations in the Islamic republic is difficult at best. The theocracy, headed by the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a political structure with formal and informal spheres of power. Iran has a parliament, a presidency and councils that conduct government affairs. Clerical and lay circles working behind closed doors can trump government plans, and there are powerful militias tied to the supreme leader, who stands alone as the reigning decision-maker.

The president of Iran is a powerful individual with authority over economic, cultural and social affairs. But the office pales in comparison with other pillars of influence; formally, it has no jurisdiction over foreign policy.

Even so, Ahmadinejad, a deeply religious Islamist, has been given the latitude to use the presidency as a bully pulpit for ideals dear to the origins of revolution and the freedom to deliver the message in a personal way.

Why that happened remains unclear; leading clerics apparently had high expectations for the relatively untested politician when he agreed to join a pack of presidential hopefuls for the June 2005 election.

Much of the Western press ignored Ahmadinejad in the first days of the race. But Ahmadinejad, who campaigned as a man of the people, was well-known to some important powers in Iran: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a military force that is dedicated to preserving the revolution, and the Basij, a civilian militia also subject to intense Islamic indoctrination. Both are highly organized, loyal to Khamenei and active in get-out-the-vote efforts.

Ahmadinejad's official biography describes him as a member of the Basij, with battlefront duties during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Analysts believe he worked intelligence operations. Basij fighters from that time said the guard and the volunteer militia were deeply integrated during the war.

The Revolutionary Guard leadership has always drawn from a pool of layman with engineering and technical skills. In the 1980s, it circumvented weapons sanctions by the United States. Today, it remains in control of Iran's arsenal.

As early as May 2004, EurasiaNet, part of the U.S.-based Open Society Institute, reported that the guard, increasingly resistant to reformist efforts, was seeking more political influence. The guard was eyeing the next presidential race; Ahmadinejad, then the little-known mayor of Tehran, was the guard's favored man, EurasiaNet reported.

Ahmadinejad rose in Iran's bureaucracy as a man of fundamental talents and fundamentalist beliefs. He was raised in Tehran, one of seven children whose father was a laborer, and he excelled in school. He studied civil engineering and eventually earned a doctorate from the Iran University of Science and Technology, a stable for the republic's military wing.

Ahmadinejad was part of the student movement that helped overthrow the shah and produce Islamic rule in 1979. But it is unclear what, if any, role he had in the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, which cleaved relations between Iran and the United States.

In the 1990s, he managed government districts outside Tehran. He was appointed mayor in 2003, and his tenure set a tone for how he would pursue his presidency: He visited all 22 districts of the sprawling capital. He tried to untangle traffic woes by finishing long-awaited tunnels and roads. In the poorest neighborhoods, he built parks and began a free soup program.

In his presidential run, Ahmadinejad emphasized social justice. He also attacked the current world order, dismissing the United Nations as "one-sided, stacked against the world of Islam." Surprising some, he praised Iran's pursuit of nuclear power.

That nuclear program, hidden by Iran for nearly two decades until revealed in 2003 by UN inspectors, has become a source of world dispute.

The UN Security Council last month demanded Iran halt its uranium enrichment program. The UN believes Iran is seeking nuclear weapons under the cover of a peaceful energy program. Iran denies that--it says it wants nuclear energy as a backup to its deep oil reserves-- and has refused to halt enrichment.

Ahmadinejad entered the fray as Iran's political bantamweight to throw verbal punches at those who would deny Iran. He baffled the United States--and many Iranians--with a letter to President Bush this spring aimed at forcing a diplomatic exchange. He has used militant and religious language to describe Iran's nuclear ambitions.

He speaks of nuclear energy as "a blessing given by Allah." He calls Iran's effort a fight for justice. "We are not prepared to submit to anyone's oppression," he says of the standoff.

Moderate cleric Mohsen Kadivar said Ahmadinejad's manner reminds people of another firebrand, the founder of the Islamic Republic. "He uses the terminology of Ayatollah Khomeini," Kadivar said. "He may not be clever in diplomatic speech but he's clever in using the mistakes of his enemies."

Israel, whose conflict with the Palestinians has long incensed Muslims in the region, is a particular target of Ahmadinejad's invective. He has described Israel as a "regime based on evil" that would "one day vanish."

Wants debate with Bush

At a televised news conference days before the UN deadline over enrichment, Ahmadinejad asked why the victors of World War II-- notably the United States--should impose their values on world disputes. Ahmadinejad bantered with reporters and said that he and President Bush should debate the issue. Some Iranian journalists broke into applause.

Ahmadinejad is seen almost daily on state-run television-- airtime never so freely granted to his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. Abroad, in largely Muslim countries such as Indonesia, he has performed a road show of religious thought and revolutionary zeal against the established world order.

"He continually uses the aura of revolutionary values," said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Alameh Tabatabaie University in Tehran. "Those who want to perpetuate a monopoly of power try to maintain certain revolutionary institutions. . . . But it is really just a way to monitor the monopoly."

The nuclear issue also allows the regime to promote Iran as a modern nation, a selling point in a country where three-quarters of the population is younger than 30. Even the risk of international economic sanctions has potential benefits, analysts say: Isolation could restrict Western influence and ensure the regime's hold over society.

The press cannot fully report in Iran, and the depth of Ahmadinejad's appeal is hard to grasp. He is clearly a symbol for the poor, and his home, a modest townhouse in south Tehran, is a magnet for the downtrodden.

Every day, dozens of people come to the tree-lined street where he lives to drop off written appeals. Most are hoping for lump sums of cash. Very many, according to those outside his front stoop, have already benefited.

"I know two or three people who have come, and they all got beautiful answers," Fatima Mirzakyam said as she blinked away tears. Mirzakyam's husband had walked out on her, and she wanted $3,000 to open a seamstress shop. "He's a man who speaks the truth, and I believe he will help me."

Last week, as Ahmadinejad attended a conference in Tehran on the coming of the 12th imam known as the Mahdi--an Islamic reckoning not unlike the Second Coming of Christ--people mobbed him like a rock star.

Several men threw notes, urging him to stay firm on nuclear power. "It's important for Muslims to be together on this," said Seyyed Mohammed Reza Alemi, an Iranian whose family hailed from Afghanistan.

One boy was left breathless. "I love this president. He pays attention to all the people. Not just the rich," said Ali Asghar, a 16-year-old student who exchanged a hello with Ahmadinejad and asked for better schooling.

"I asked him to help me, please help me," he said. "And I think he will. He looks like an angel."