There may or may not have been an assassination attempt against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today. The initial reports suggested that a grenade exploded near the president's motorcade as he traveled through the western Iranian city of Hamedan on the way to give a speech at the city's stadium. The official account from state media is that the explosion was only a firecracker. The president gave his speech as scheduled and without incident. Further confusing the story are the conflicting reports that one, "several," or no arrests were made in response to the incident.
Because information within Iran is so tightly controlled, we have little way of knowing whether this was in fact just a firecracker that got Iran's notorious rumor mill spinning or a legitimate "lone gunman" attack. (Such an incident does not fit the profile of Iran's organized insurgent groups, which favor suicide bombings or coordinated assaults.) Regardless of what really happened, Hamedan is exactly the kind of place where Ahmedinejad would be most at risk from an attempt by a lone gunman. Here are three reasons why.
(1) Strong Persian Culture Hamedan, a 3,000-year-old city featured in the Old Testament, identifies strongly with its pre-Islamic, Persian history. The city is filled with historic landmarks celebrating its heritage from the Persian Empire, including stone inscriptions by Kings Darius and Xerxes, who followed the Zoroastrian faith. Ancient Persian history in the Islamic Republic of Iran is similar to the Confederate flag in the American South: Celebrated as an alternative to the government and used as a symbol of rebellion and subversion. Since the 1990s, reformists have increasingly championed Persian imagery and history to rally Iranians against the theocratic regime. The "green movement" has used imagery of the ancient capital, Persepolis, in opposition posters. In response, the government has derided pre-Islamic Persian culture as un-Islamic. The many Persian sites in Hamadan, like giant billboards advertising against the Islamic Republic, would exacerbate anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment.
(2) Large Mercantile Middle Class Hamedan is a relatively prosperous city of about 500,000 with a vibrant bazaar and middle class. As Iranian-American academic and Obama administration adviser Vali Nasr explains in his book Forces of Fortune, Ahmadinejad's economic policies have been extremely damaging to the middle class, shuttering private business in favor of state-run enterprises and arbitrarily re-allocating much of the middle class wealth to the lower classes. The president has been especially aggressive against the bazaar-oriented mercantile class. Secular, urban, middle class Iranians make up much of the opposition movement and have been increasingly vocal--and angry--in their opposition. Hamedan's middle class residents have good reason to be furious with their president.
(3) Demographics Would Not Attract Security Compared to the rest of Iran, Hamedan probably has a low security presence relative to its population. The city is majority Persian, so state security and intelligence forces would be less concerned about terrorism, which typically takes place in the ethnic Kurdish and Baloch regions of Iran. State security groups like the Revolutionary Guards may dominate large, student-heavy cities like Tehran, which are often centers of opposition and protest, but a small city like Hamedan does not attract the same attention. Much of Iran is a police state, and Hamedan is probably no exception, but its demographics would make it a low priority for security forces. As a result, Ahmedinajed's exposure would be unusually high and the likelihood of an attack being prevented would be unusually low.
This does not mean that we should consider the reports of an assassination attempt to be credible, as we simply do not know enough about what happened. But if there were a lone-gunman attempt on Ahmedinejad, whether today or some day in the future, Hamedan is one of the places where it would be most likely happen.
Photo: The Ganj Nameh, located in Hamedan, is a set of stone inscriptions ordered by Persian kings Darius and Xerxes during their reigns in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. It is just one of several ancient Persian landmarks in Hamedan. By Flickr user hapal under a CC license.