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Profile: Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

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Ahmadinejad and Khamenei

Where the power comes from: Ayatollah Khomeini, framed and unsmiling, reigns above Ali Khamenei, Iran's "Supreme Leader," and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president.

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Why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Matters:

Ahmadinejad, the sixth president of Iran since that country’s revolution in 1979, is a populist who represents Iran’s most radicalized factions. His incendiary remarks about Israel, the Holocaust and the West coupled with Iran’s continued development of nuclear power and its support of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon make Ahmadinejad the focal point of a seemingly more dangerous Iran with outsized ambitions. Still, Ahmadinejad isn’t the ultimate authority in Iran. His domestic policies are poor and the looseness of his cannon embarrassing to Iran’s image. But he won a crushing re-election victory in 2009.

Ahmadinejad’s Youth and Formation:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born in October 1956 in the desert town of Aradan, 60 miles southeast of Tehran, the fourth of seven children. His father, who ran a grocery store, moved the family to a working class neighborhood of Tehran soon after Ahmadinejad’s birth and became an ironworker. He also changed the family’s name, which had been Saborjhian, to Ahmadinejad—“race of Muhammad.” At Iran University of Science and Technology, Ahmadinejad’s earliest, powerful influence was Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati, who saw Shiite Islam as an ideology of social justice.
Ahmadinejad continued his studies, marrying a fellow student at 24 (they have two sons and a daughter) and earning a B.A. in engineering and, in 1997, a doctorate in traffic management. His role in the Iranian Revolution is fuzzy. Some of the American hostages held in Tehran in 1980 claimed, in 2005, that he was among the captors. He claims he opposed the take-over. He led a street-level revolutionary committee during the early days of the Iranian Revolution and joined a paramilitary force, the Basji, that enforces moral codes. The Basji became one of Ahmadinejad’s a political bases.

Ahmadinejad Before the Presidency:

Ahmadinejad’s life in the 1980s is poorly documented. He held administrative posts in West Azerbaijan and was appointed governor of the province of Ardabil in northwest Iran until moderate Mohammed Khatami, as president, fired Ahmadinejad, who returned to teaching. Ahmadinejad may have also served in the Iran-Iraq war, though in what capacity is unclear. In 2003 he was appointed mayor of Tehran. Among his first acts: conversion of art galleries into prayer centers during Ramadan and cancellation of concerts and cultural events. He rejected presumption, thrived on constituent services, spoke plainly and made promises.

Winning the Presidency in 2005:

His popularity grew. Ahmadinejad was one of seven candidates in the June 17, 2005 presidential election. None won more than 50 percent of the vote, forcing a run-off for the first time in the Islamic Republic’s young history. Ahmadinejad won with 14.4 million votes to former president Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s 8.2 million votes. Iran’s economy has continued to falter under his presidency, which explains Ahmadinejad’s many antics: by shifting attention to Israel, the Holocaust or the United States, he is shifting Iranian’s attention from their own concerns.

Ahmadinejad’s Ideology and Influences:

Ahmadinejad’s political mentor and “senior adviser to the president”—his Karl Rove—is Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh, who may or may not be married to Ahmadinejad’s wife’s sister, and who may or may not have served with him in the Iran-Iraq war. What is certain about Hashemi-Samareh is that he is Ahmadinejad’s shadow, and that, like Ahmadinejad, he is a follower of Iran’s (and Shiite Islam’s) most extremist cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts who believes in absolute separation from the West and strictly originalist, literal interpretation of the Koran.

Mesbah-Yazdi, an advocate of violence against moderates and whose followers consider the fatwa to murder Salman Rushdie still in effect, was the first person Ahmadinejad met after winning election in 2005. Ahmadinejad himself is a devout Twelver Shiite which, as the New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson put it, “is the equivalent of a born-again Christian.”

Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust and Israel:

The Holocaust is rarely (if ever, today) taught in Iranian schools. Neither is contemporary American or European history. Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust-denier. In early 2006 he spearheaded the International Holocaust Cartoon Exhibition in Tehran, which depicted numerously obscene caricatures of Jews, including Jews as Nazis. A week after President Obama’s election, Ahmadinejad green-lighted a conference entitled “Holocaust? A Sacred Lie by the West.” In 2005, Ahmadinejad, at an anti-Israel rally, said Israel should be “wiped off the map.” He’s danced around the statement since but never retracted it.

Asked about the remark in a September 2008 Press TV interview, Ahmadinejad said: "Where is the Soviet Union? The Soviet Union has been wiped off the map. [...] The decision of the people, the vote of the people. When the people of the Soviet Union, the Russian people, were allowed to decide to take charge of their destiny, the Soviet Union disappeared. The Zionist regime is an artificial regime… a fictitious regime. You brought people from different parts of the world and you have built this state. No, that cannot last, it is not sustainable. If they do not listen to our solution, this will happen one day."

Limits of Ahmadinejad's Power :

Ahmadinejad’s power is misunderstood in the West. He is the Iranian president. He is popularly elected. But he does not control the armed forces (the supreme leader does) nor does he have the power to declare war (the supreme leader does) nor does he have the power to set foreign or domestic policy (the supreme leader does). In sum, Ahmadinejad may set the general tone and hue of Iran’s image.

But he does not make policy as much as the West assumes, and his embarrassing remarks don’t go unnoticed at home, especially by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who named a foreign policy council as a direct rebuke to Ahmadinejad’s self-perceived powers. Still, Ahmadinejad provides the supreme leader with an effective foil. When matters go wrong in Iran, the leader (and Iranians) can blame it on the president. When they go right, the supreme leader is quick to take credit. In sum, the power and reach of Ahmadinejad’s words, including (and especially) those about Israel or nuclear power, are limited and severely proscribed.

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