Do We Have Ahmadinejad All Wrong?

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Is it possible that Iran's blustering president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, long thought to be a leading force behind some of Iran's most hard-line and repressive policies, is actually a reformer whose attempts to liberalize, secularize, and even "Persianize" Iran have been repeatedly stymied by the country's more conservative factions? That is the surprising impression one gets reading the latest WikiLeaks revelations, which portray Ahmadinejad as open to making concessions on Iran's nuclear program and far more accommodating to Iranians' demands for greater freedoms than anyone would have thought. Two episodes in particular deserve special scrutiny not only for what they reveal about Ahmadinejad but for the light they shed on the question of who really calls the shots in Iran.

In October 2009, Ahamdinejad's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, worked out a compromise with world power representatives in Geneva on Iran's controversial nuclear program. But the deal, in which Iran agreed to ship nearly its entire stockpile of low enriched uranium to Russia and France for processing, collapsed when it failed to garner enough support in Iran's parliament, the Majles.

According to a U.S. diplomatic cable recently published by WikiLeaks, Ahmadinejad, despite all of his tough talk and heated speeches about Iran's right to a nuclear program, fervently supported the Geneva arrangement, which would have left Iran without enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. But, inside the often opaque Tehran government, he was thwarted from pursuing the deal by politicians on both the right and the left who saw the agreement as a "defeat" for the country and who viewed Ahmadinejad as, in the words of Ali Larijani, the conservative Speaker of the Majles, "fooled by the Westerners."

Despite the opposition from all sides, Ahmadinajed, we have learned, continued to tout the nuclear deal as a positive and necessary step for Iran. In February 2010, he reiterated his support for the Geneva agreement saying, "If we allow them to take [Iran's enriched uranium for processing], there is no problem." By June, long after all parties in the Geneva agreement had given up on the negotiations and the Iranian government had publicly taken a much firmer line on its nuclear program, Ahmadinejad was still trying to revive the deal. "The Tehran declaration is still alive and can play a role in international relations even if the arrogant (Western) powers are upset and angry," he declared. Even as late as September, Ahmadinejad was still promising that "there is a good chance that talks will resume in the near future," despite statements to the contrary from Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

The second revelation from WikiLeaks is even more remarkable. Apparently, during a heated 2009 security meeting at the height of the popular demonstrations roiling Iran in the wake of his disputed reelection, Ahmadinejad suggested that perhaps the best way to deal with the protesters would be to open up more personal and social freedoms, including more freedom of the press. While the suggestion itself seems extraordinary, coming as it does from a man widely viewed by the outside world as the instigating force behind Iran's turn toward greater repression, what is truly amazing about this story is the response of the military brass in the room. According to WikiLeaks, the Revolutionary Guard's Chief of Staff, Mohammed Ali Jafari, slapped Ahmadinejad across the face right in the middle of the meeting, shouting, "You are wrong! It is you who created this mess! And now you say give more freedom to the press?"

Taken together, these revelations paint a picture of Iran's president as a man whose domestic and foreign policy decisions - whether with regard to his views on women's rights or his emphasis on Iran's Persian heritage - are at odds not only with his image in the West but with the views and opinions of the conservative establishment in Iran.

Take, for example, Ahmadinejad's comments in June 2010, when he publicly condemned the harassing of young women for "improperly" covering themselves, a common complaint among Iranians. "The government has nothing to do with [women's hijab] and doesn't interfere in it. We consider it insulting when a man and a woman are walking in the streets and they're asked about their relationship. No one has the right to ask about it." Ahmadinejad even criticized "the humiliating high-profile [morality] police crackdown already underway," and recommended launching what he called a "cultural campaign" against "interpretations of Islamic dress that have been deemed improper by authorities."

In response to those rather enlightened statements, the head of the clerical establishment in the Majles, Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, lambasted Ahamdinejad. "Those who voted for you were the fully veiled people," Rahbar said. "The badly veiled 'greens' did not vote for you, so you'd better consider that what pleases God is not pleasing a number of corrupt people." The ultra-conservative head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, also weighed in on Ahmadinejad's criticism of the morality police. "Drug traffickers are hanged, terrorists are executed and robbers are punished for their crimes, but when it comes to the law of God, which is above human rights, [some individuals] stay put and speak about cultural programs."

Ayatollah Jannati's comments reflect the growing rift between the president and the country's religious establishment, perhaps best exemplified by Ahamdinejad's unprecedented decision to stop attending meetings of the Expediency Council, whose members represent the interests of Iran's clerical elite. Ahamdinejad later questioned the very concept of clerical rule in Iran, raising controversy in Tehran and drawing the ire of the powerful religious establishment. "Administering the country should not be left to the [Supreme] Leader, the religious scholars, and other [clerics]," Ahmadinejad declared, lampooning his religious rivals for "running to Qum [the religious capital of Iran] for every instruction."

Ahmadinejad's brazen opinions were echoed by his closest adviser and chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. "An Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous country like Iran," Mashaei said. "Running a country is like a horse race, but the problem is that [the clergy] are not horse racers."

Bear in mind that advancing such anti-regime, anti-clerical views can be considered a criminal offense in Iran, one potentially punishable by death. And yet, they seem to be part of a larger push by Ahmadinejad and his circle to change the nature of the Islamic Republic. Indeed, Ahmadinejad seems to be actively pursuing what Meshaei has termed "an Iranian school of thought rather than the Islamic school of thought" for Iran, one that harkens back to Iran's ancient Persian heritage, drawing particular inspiration from Iran's ancient king, Cyrus the Great.

While many Iranians - particularly among the supporters of Ahmadinejad's 2009 presidential rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who frequently used ancient Persian imagery during the campaign - share precisely the same view, the country's conservatives and the religious establishment most definitely do not. "The president should be aware that he is obligated to promote Islam and not ancient Iran," cried one member of Parliament, "and if he fails to fulfill his obligation, he will lose the support and trust of the Muslim nation of Iran."

Even Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, criticized the notion of emphasizing Iran's Persian past, condemning those who support such a view as being "not our comrades; we have no permanent friendship to anyone, but to those who are following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Islam," Mesbah-Yazdi said. "Did Imam Khomeini ever refrain from mentioning Islam in a speech and say Iran instead?"

It might seem shocking to both casual and dedicated Iran-watcher that the bombastic Ahmadinejad could, behind Tehran's closed doors, be playing the reformer. After all, this was the man who, in 2005, generated wide outrage in the West for suggesting that Israel should be "wiped from the map." But even that case said as much about our limited understanding of him and his context as it did about Ahmadinejad himself. The expression "wipe from the map" means "destroy" in English but not in Farsi. In Farsi, it means not that Israel should be eliminated but that the existing political borders should literally be wiped from a literal map and replaced with those of historic Palestine. That's still not something likely to win him cheers in U.S. policy circles, but the distinction, which has been largely lost from the West's understanding of the Iranian president, is important.

As always, both Ahmadinejad the man and the Iranian government he ostensibly leads resist easy characterization. The truth is that the opaque nature of Iran's government and the country's deeply fractured political system make it difficult to draw any clear or simple conclusions. It's not obvious whether Ahmadinejad is driven by a legitimate desire for reform or just tactical political interests. But if you oppose the Mullahs' rule, yearn for greater social and political freedoms for the Iranian people, and envision an Iran that draws inspiration from the glories of its Persian past, then, believe it or not, you have more in common with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than you might have thought.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.


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Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God as well as Beyond Fundamentalism and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East.

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