Do We Have Ahmadinejad All Wrong?

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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