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."

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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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