Middle East


President Ahmadinejad’s First Year

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during a two-day conference in Tehran on security in Iraq. (Photo: Hassan Ammar / AFP-Getty Images)

One year has passed since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line ex-Mayor of Tehran, unexpectedly took presidential office in Iran. By any measure, it has been one of the country's most eventful years in recent decades.

Most signficantly, international negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear enrichment program remain deadlocked, paralleling the country's foreign policy, which is on the verge of a major crisis.

After the unanticipated victory in 2005's presidential election, Ahmadinejad's main opponent, the influential Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as many of Iran's 70 million people, struggled to understand how this largely unknown political figure had won.

The effort to find a suitable explanation, however, led to no concrete results except unsubstantiated claims theorizing undue influence from the military in the election.

Humble Roots

Born in 1956 to a blacksmith father in the central Iranian town of Garmsar, Ahmadinejad studied civil engineering at Tehran's University of Science and Technology. He gained a PhD in his chosen field and went on to become a professor at the university. During the Shah's reign, Ahmadinejad was linked with the Islamic opposition, and served with the Revolutionary Guard in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. After the war, he was appointed as governor of the province of Ardabil.

Ahmadinejad's name remained largely anonymous to the general public as well as political observers until 2003 when he became mayor of Tehran. As mayor, he chose to live in the working-class Tehran quarter of Narmak, where he still resides.

Ahmadinejad belongs to the ultra-conservative Abadgaran (Developers) political alliance, which won a majority in the 2004 parliamentary elections. As a result, Rafsanjani — like many voters and analysts — feared that Ahmadinejad's ascension would mean the end of the reforms initiated by his reformist predecessor Mohammad Khatami.

These concerns significantly intensified when Ahmadinejad appointed two notorious figures, Mostafa Poor Mohammadi and Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ezhei to the most essential posts of his cabinet, the Interior ministry and the Intelligence ministry. The two aforementioned clerics have been accused of participating in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners during 1988. They also are believed to be among those responsible for a chain of murders involving Iranian intellectual figures which took place approximately seven years ago, and functioned to weaken the reformist wave that gained strength after Khatami's victory in 1997.

Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, had never made any secret of his strong Islamic beliefs. During the election campaign he called for a new Islamic revolution, which would bring prosperity to "the poor and the barefoot."

After one year he has managed to maintain his credibility among the villagers and the poor due to the numerous provincial trips that he regularly plans, in addition to the fiery speeches he gives about the international rights of the Iranians and fighting economical corruption.

Leadership Abilities Questioned

Ahmadinejad's abilities as leader have been the source of heated debate among Iranians. Many regard him as a modest champion of the people, whereas to others he is little more than a populist, not far removed from his peasant roots.

All sides agree, however, that in terms of both domestic and foreign policy Ahmadinejad is nothing if not unpredictable. The first shock came when he called for the eradication of Israel from the map. After the huge wave of negative (and some even dangerous) reactions and condemnations from the international community, he changed his plan to moving the Israelis to "some place else on the planet, Alaska for instance." He simultaneously denied the existence of the Holocaust.

Ahmadinejad is still firm in his Holocaust-denial stance. An Iranian authority said recently that the Islamic Republic was going ahead with its plan to host a conference questioning the Holocaust. The controversial idea emerged after Ahmadinejad described the slaughter of an estimated six million Jews during World War II as a "fable."

"It [the Holocaust conference] is going to be held in October," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters.

In January, British Prime Minister Tony Blair described plans for the conference as "shocking, ridiculous, stupid," and advised Ahmadinejad to "come and see the evidence of the Holocaust himself in the countries of Europe." However, Iran responded by inviting Blair to take part in the conference to "defend the Holocaust" there.

Ahmadinejad had even more surprises in store. Right at the peak of Iran's nuclear enrichment crisis, when compromise was the expected policy, he ironically said that he would hang the resolutions from the United Nation's Security Council on the wall. Then he marked the first direct political contact with America in Iran's post-revolution history by writing a lengthy letter to U.S. President George Bush. Though known as an ultra-conservative, he suddenly asked for women to be allowed in the stadiums to watch the major sports events — most significantly, football. This liberal statement led to a stormy confrontation with some of the key figures among his fundamental supporters.

Last, but certainly not least, one of Ahmadinejad's first acts in office during August of 2005 was to resume uranium enrichment at the nuclear facility in Isfahan, a move which erupted into one of the year's biggest international political disputes.

An Eventful Year

Following his June 2005 election, Tehran rejected international allegations that it was using its peaceful nuclear program to cloak the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

August 2005: Iran removed seals placed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at its nuclear facility in Isfahan, and recommenced uranium enrichment at the plant.

September 2005: During a strongly-worded speech to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad referred to a "nuclear apartheid" and insisted on his country's right to enrich uranium. An IAEA resolution charged Iran with violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

November 2005: An IAEA report revealed that during the 1980s, Iran received assistance from Pakistan in building gas centrifuges with which uranium could be enriched for military use.

January 2006: Iran resumed its research into the nuclear fuel cycle. Moscow offered to facilitate enrichment on Russian soil. Iran stalled talks numerous times. The country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni declared: "We are not pursuing an atomic weapons program."

February 2006: IAEA inspectors discovered traces of highly-enriched uranium at the Lavisan-Shian nuclear site. The IAEA board of governors decided in favor of referring the Iran case to the U.N. Security Council. Iran then suspended all cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

March 2006: Ahmadinejad refused to consider concessions. Talks with the European Union and Russia failed. The Security Council called for a suspension of uranium enrichment, setting a deadline of April 28.

April 2006: Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had successfully enriched uranium. An IAEA report confirmed that the country had indeed enriched nuclear fuel-grade uranium, thereby defying the U.N. deadline.

May 2006: Tehran dismissed an EU-sponsored package of compromise measures aimed at resolving the dispute. In a policy about-face, the U.S. declares itself ready for direct negotiations under certain conditions.

June 2006: During a visit to Tehran on June 6, EU chief diplomat Javier Solana presented a new package of incentives from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany. At the same time, scientists at Iran's Natanz plant readied centrifuges to again enrich uranium.

Ahmadinejad's Power Curbed

Although the key figures in Tehran, most significantly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, have repeatedly expressed support for Ahmadinejad, some recent political decisions by the supreme leader show some degree of mistrust in the domestic and foreign policy practices of the president.

Shortly after Ahmadinejad's August 2005 inauguration, Khamenei tasked the Expediency Council with overseeing the political system's policies by supervising the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, and reporting on their performance to him. This placed limits on the president's power to make radical decisions.

The Expediency Council must consider any issue submitted to it by the supreme leader, according to the Iranian Constitution (Article 112).

The creation of the new foreign relations council is the most recent indication that Khamenei is concerned about Ahmadinejad's confrontational approach, as well as his management style.

The Strategic Council for Foreign Relations (Shora-yi Rahbordi-yi Ravabet-i Khareji) was created by a June 25 decree from Khamenei. The council is supposed to facilitate the country's decision-making process, find new foreign policy approaches, and make use of foreign policy experts, according to the decree.

The council's membership reflects a depth of practical expertise and cumulative experience which surpasses that of the youthful and inexperienced foreign policy team under Ahmadinejad.

Some observers hope that the council will supplant the executive branch in foreign affairs. An enthusiastic Shargh, a pro-reform Iranian daily newspaper, on June 27 described this as the return of the "moderates" to foreign relations. The newspaper further noted that the council had the makings of a presidential cabinet, with the presence of a military person (Ali Shamkhani); a commerce expert (Hasan Shariatmadari); and a political and cultural figure (Ali Akbar Velayati), working along with the head of the council (Kamal Kharrazi).

Defying Expectations

Nevertheless, taking a close look at the one-year political record of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president confirms the notion that he has in some ways defied the realities of politics. His decision-making, his literature, and even his fiery speeches are markedly far from any stereotypical political stance.

The fact is that in an extremely crucial period, Ahmadinejad, just an ordinary guy with no major political background has been thrown into Iran's political arena, where the spotlight soon caught some of his unexpected, un-thoughtful statements.

During his first political trip abroad, Ahmadinejad visited the U.N.'s General Assembly along with other world leaders. Upon his return to Tehran he was apparently so overwhelmed by his newly found importance in stepping out on the international stage, that made this strange statement in a private meeting with a religious scholar: "When I was addressing the leaders of the world, none of them could move their eyes off of me as if an invisible hand had hold them tight, they could not even blink. After the speech, one of the participants told me that while I was talking he saw a capsule of light surrounded me. I felt it myself too."

The private meeting was secretly filmed and widely distributed in Iran. It became the subject of speculation and concern among observers, and of course a matter of laughter among ordinary people. Ahmadinejad later characterized the whole event as a fraud, involving a tape which had been edited and dubbed.

In the year since his election, it is obvious that Ahmadinejad knows he is under the spotlight, and apparently enjoys being there.

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