THE SCARIEST MAN ON EARTH
Meet Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who wants nuclear weapons and for Israel to be moved to Alaska. And did we mention that thing about his divine aura?
He believes that Israel is a “disgraceful stain”
that must be “wiped off the map.” He calls the Holocaust a “myth.” And he claims that when he addresses world leaders, he is bathed in a divine aura that prevents those watching him from turning away, or even blinking. Meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s new president, and the leader of a country that is set to go nuclear.
Few people outside Iran had heard of Ahmadinejad before his surprise victory in the June 2005 presidential election. He is rumoured to have taken part in the 1979 seizure of the American embassy in Tehran during the early days of the Islamic revolution, and some former hostages and a journalist who covered the crisis say they recognize him from that time. He joined the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1986, and has since been accused of playing a role in the covert assassinations of Kurdish opposition leaders in Austria. (These allegations are not proven and he has denied them.)
Ahmadinejad’s political career began in 2003, when he was elected mayor of Tehran in an election in which most residents did not vote. He immediately reversed reforms made by his more moderate predecessors, insisting, for example, that men and women use separate elevators in municipal buildings. A man who worked with Ahmadinejad at the time described him as ruthless and completely devoted to the ideals of the Islamic revolution.
Perhaps for this reason, during the presidential election Ahmadinejad had the support of hard-core clerics in the Revolutionary Guards and Guardian Council. They, in turn, could mobilize millions of Iranians who receive money from Iran’s extremely wealthy and influential Islamic foundations. Ahmadinejad’s image as an austere and honest populist also resonated with voters who were fed up with the widening gap between rich and poor. But many Iranians, especially the young and educated, didn’t think he would make it past the first round of voting.
“No one took him seriously through the whole campaign,” says Hossein Derakhshan, 31, an Iranian-Canadian who travelled to Iran during the election to vote and to work on the campaign of reformist candidate Mostafa Moeen. Derakhshan, who is known as “Hoder” on his Internet blog www.hoder.com, was at Moeen’s Tehran headquarters, which was packed with supporters, when it was announced Ahmadinejad had finished second and would be advancing to the final round of voting. “People were upset and depressed,” he told Maclean’s. “I was very depressed and hopeless. We had no idea what
1 this guy was up to.” WORLD In the final round, Ahmadinejad was pitted against Akbar Rafsanjani, a cleric and former president of Iran widely described by Western media as a “moderate reformer,” but seen as a reheated has-been by secular democrats in Iran. Faced with two unappealing choices, millions of reform-minded Iranians boycotted the election. Even then, the religious hard-liners weren’t about to leave anything to chance. “The Guardian Council had so many election monitors, it was a joke,” says Ali Ansari, an Iranian and an associate professor of modern history at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. Ballot boxes were reportedly stuffed. Ahmadinejad became president.
Ahmadinejad immediately gave notice that his leadership would mean the return of religious conservatism to government, and increased defiance internationally. Eight years earlier, in 1997, women and students had mobilized against the wishes of the religious establishment to elect a cleric named Mohammad Khatami, who promised to modernize Iran, help young people and improve the status of women. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a very different man. “This fellow belongs to the young generation of Islamic hard-liners who are upset with their predecessors but also with the older guard of the Islamic regime,” says Saeed Rahnema, a Middle East specialist and professor of political science at York University who grew up in Iran. “They want to go back to the time of the revolution in the early 1980s, with the hope that they would re-Islamicize the whole society. All of them are of the same type. They are young. They are zealots. And they would like to establish a truly fundamentalist Shia Islamic regime in Iran.” Ahmadinejad purged Iran’s diplomatic corps of alleged moderates. Seyyed Mohammad Hossein Adeli, the Iranian ambassador to the U.K., who admitted last year that Iranian security officials murdered Canadian
photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, was sacked, as were some 40 other ambassadors. And in the Kurdish areas of Iran, Ahmadinejad replaced local Kurdish officials with hard-liners connected to the Revolutionary Guards.
The Kurds, a Sunni Muslim minority in predominantly Shia Iran, tend to have a more relaxed attitude toward religious doctrine. But Ahmadinejad’s officials have enforced their own interpretation of what is proper and acceptable under Islamic law. “At social gatherings, whether they’re parties, ceremonies, even funerals, the government has stepped in to divide the men and women. Now they have to dance separately,” says Sharif Behruz, an Iranian Kurd living in Ottawa who has family in Iran and is a member of the banned opposition group, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. Anger in Kurdish areas erupted in mass protests on several occasions last fall.
Ahmadinejad also banned “indecent” Western music—a symbolic gesture, but an empty one given the prevalence of satellite television, the Internet and black market
CDs. “In the streets and in private parties, nothing has changed. The youth are as fashionable as they had been,” Saloumeh Peyman, an Iranian woman, told Maclean’s in an email interview. “We are very much a go-our-ownway people,” said Behi, an Iranian Internet blogger who didn’t want his real name printed, in another online interview. Iranians who think Ahmadinejad’s decrees are ridiculous simply choose to defy him in private.
But even this is becoming less possible. Independent newspapers are routinely shut down, and the regime is having success blocking access to dissenting Internet sites and blogs, popular forums for critical thinking among Iranian youth. Derakhshan, for example, notes that the percentage of his readers who are living in Iran has dropped from 40 per cent to 13 per cent in the last year.
Most worrying for Western governments, however, is Ahmadinejad’s hostility toward Israel and the West, coupled with an apparent desire to secure nuclear weapons. His declaration that Israel must be “wiped off the map” came at an October 2005 conference titled “A World Without Zionism.” In the same speech, Ahmadinejad condemned Islamic leaders who recognized Israel’s existence for “acknowledging a surrender and defeat of the Islamic world”—a direct attack against countries such as Qatar and Pakistan, which are moving toward better relations with Israel. When criticized for these remarks,
He immediately gave notice that his election would mean the return of religious conservatism to government
Iran’s ambassador to the European Union complained of discrimination, and called the international reaction to Ahmadinejad’s comments “unrealistic and premature.” Two months later, Ahmadinejad suggested moving Israel to Alaska.
Rahnema said most of the governments in nearby Muslim countries are nervous, and disturbed by Ahmadinejad’s presidency. “Iran is a very powerful country,” he points out. “It is not Iraq. It is not a tiny Arab sheikdom. Having a zealous, confrontational character in power would make them scared. But what he says about Israel gets support among the people of the Middle East who are very upset with the Israeli-Palestinian situation. So he gains some support.”
Last week, Iran broke United Nations seals on a uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, triggering a diplomatic crisis that will almost certainly lead to a standoffwith the United States, Britain and the European Union. The U.K., Germany and France— with the support of the United States—have called for Iran to be hauled before the UN Security Council to face possible sanctions. Ahmadinejad appears to relish the looming showdown. Iran, he said, “has no fear at all of all the fuss created by the big powers.”
It is unlikely he is bluffing. “He has a very delusional sense of what Iranian nationalism is and what the Iranian nation can do,” says Ansari, the professor. “I think the main danger that he represents is that he’s a romantic idealist about the war [between Iran and Iraq] and the early days of the revolution. He believes that those were the golden days when everyone had faith. You know—war purifies and cleans things up. It’s a vision of the past, a nostalgic vision of the past, that bears very little relation to reality. His vision is, ‘Sanctions? It will be character-building. Good! Let the people suffer a bit. A little bit of harshness, a little bit of Puritanism, it’ll do you good!’ ”
Ansari believes that a military conflict is likely to erupt between Iranian and U.S. or British forces along the Iran-Iraq border. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have infiltrated several Shia militias inside southern Iraq. British forces in the region do little as long as their presence isn’t violent. But almost inevitably, Ansari says, it will become so. “You have two powers with vested interests. As long as these two antagonists’ forces are present, the propensity for such a crisis emerging is high.” Already, according to reliable but second-hand reports, U.S. troops have been on the verge of attacking Revolutionary Guard positions when the latter moved a border post a mile or so inside Iraqi territory. The situation was allegedly defused by the British. According to Peyman and Behi, however, some Iranian dissidents are actually hoping
the United States, Britain or Israel attacks Iran, because this would be the surest way to bring down Iran’s theocratic dictatorship. “I am against this,” Behi says. “First, I don’t want to meet any of those bunker-busters so that Americans can watch CNN and have their Big Macs and say, ‘Cool!’ Second, I am sure Iranians will not be so welcoming in case of full invasion. I want the world to understand that Ahmadinejad would love that, because he could hide all of his shortcomings behind the fact that Iran is under attack. That would be the easiest time to suf-
focate the opposition.”
But some Iranians believe that Ahmadinejad’s belligerence is not motivated by worldly concerns.
The Iranian president is a follower of an ultra-orthodox messianic branch of Shia Islam. According to this tradition, the Prophet Mohammed had 12 descendants through his cousin, Ali ibn Talib. The final descendant, Mohammed al-Mahdi, known as the Imam Mahdi or the Lord of All Ages, was concealed by God and disappeared. He will return to Earth at a time of chaos and war. Ahmadinejad has said that the role of his presidency, and the duty of all Iranians, is to prepare for the imam’s return (one of his first acts as president was to allocate $25 million to a shrine
dedicated to the imam outside the holy city of Qom). Many Shias do believe the imam will one day reappear, but they fear a president who has devoted his government to the return of a messiah. They worry that Ahmadinejad, more ominously, sees little reason to avoid war. Violent chaos, after all, is a sign that the return of the Lord of All Ages is nigh.
When addressing the UN last September, Ahmadinejad began his remarks by asking God to hasten the Imam Mahdi’s return. He later met with a cleric and discussed his remarks. A video of this meeting has been cir-
culating on the Internet and on CDs in Tehran. In it, Ahmadinejad says that a member of the Iranian entourage told him he was immediately surrounded by a ring of light when he called upon God in his speech.
“I felt it myself,” Ahmadinejad says.
“I felt the atmosphere suddenly change, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink. When I say they didn’t bat an eyelid, I’m not exaggerating, because I was looking at them, and they were rapt. It seemed as if a hand was holding them there, and had opened their eyes to receive a message from the Islamic republic.”
Derakhshan, the Iranian blogger from Toronto, was in New York for Ahmadinejad’s UN address. He caught up with the Iranian
president in a hotel lobby.
“I didn’t see a light, though,” he said with a bitter laugh.
I was last in Iran in April 2004, a time I now recognize to have been the twilight of the Iranian political reform movement. Most democratic dissidents had already lost faith in the presidency of Khatami, who had ultimately failed to deliver his promised reforms. Some blamed the country’s “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who holds ultimate power—and his minions in the security forces, clergy and judiciary for blocking Khatami’s reforms. And it is true that the Khamenei-controlled Guardian Council vetoed 111 of the 297 bills that Khatami endorsed as president. Others blamed Khatami himself for lacking the courage to stand up to the clerics who had transformed their beloved country into a fascist state.
But outside the halls of political power, the defiance and desire for change among so many Iranians seemed irreversible. Almost everyone scorned the government—some for political reasons, others for its puritanical restrictions on exposed skin, alcohol and rock music. Women pushed their transparent headscarves as far back on their heads as possible, and whiskey flowed freely behind closed doors. I spent a lot of time in the old Persian capital of Esfahan, a beautiful blue-tiled city south of Tehran, passing several evenings with a middle-aged Iranian named Nasser and his elderly uncle Farouk, a former academic who was jailed for a time following the Islamic revolution. We would eat kebabs and get pleasantly drunk on illegal moonshine mixed with “Mecca Cola,” a soft drink Iran’s leaders presumably hoped would save their countrymen from the corrupting influence of Coke.
In between animated discussion about politics and religion (Nasser and Farouk are both atheists)—held while Farouk’s illegal satellite television broadcast news shows produced by Iranian exiles abroad, music videos and pornography—Farouk tried to teach me a Persian folk song that was once popular with nomads and shepherds who moved their flocks down from the hills when winter ended. I can still remember its chorus:
Spring is coming. / The flowers are here. /
I am going to the desert.
At the time, an Iranian Spring did indeed seem to be just around the comer. Both Farouk and Nasser were full of hope for their country’s future. Given the irrepressible optimism of so many Iranians, perhaps they still are. And perhaps they would be correct. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency could be the “last gasp” of extremist political Islam in Iran, as some have said. But his rise to power has brought a chill to the country, and it is impossible not to fear that darker days lie ahead. M