Ahmadinejad, Fighter

Why does the Iranian president seem so determined to keep swinging in a political battle some believe he is destined to lose?



Sadegh Zibakalam, a renowned Iranian Political Science professor at Tehran University, did not mince his words. "If Ahmadinejad raises the white flag and holds it, he will pass the remaining two years without any incidents," he said on Monday. "But if he goes towards the path of resisting and fighting and not surrender, in that case the Parliament could impeach him".

If Ahmadinejad having to raise the white flag is the only criteria for completing the remaining two years of his presidency, then the international community should prepare itself to bid farewell to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before his term ends in June 2013. The embattled president's political fight against some of Iran's most powerful forces, which now includes the all powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) has left him isolated like never before

What Ahmadinejad lacks in size he makes up for in determination. Throughout his life, the Iranian president has shown himself to be a determined fighter.

Members of his family often recount the story of how, at the age of seven, he was kicked out of Koran class by his teacher for being too young to attend. But the young Ahmadinejad returned to the classroom, reading the Koran out loud in front of the teacher as a show of dedication.

As a student in 1975, while taking the University Entrance Exam (called Concour in Iran), one of the most important and difficult exams in Iran's entire educational system, Ahmadinejad suddenly got a nose bleed. He continued with the exam, scoring the 132nd highest result in the entire country that year.

Though Ahmadinejad is determined, he chooses his fights carefully, taking part only when he believes that he has a chance to win.

As a young student, Ahmadinejad was known for his vehement anti-communism. During the planning stage of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, he reportedly told his colleagues, "We accept that the dangers of the U.S. But who said that the threat posed by the U.S. is greater than the one posed by the Soviet Union? Who said that the fight against capitalism and imperialism is more important than the fight against communism? If we are going to takeover, the takeover of the Soviet embassy is more important than that of the U.S. embassy." When his plan was rejected, Ahmadinejad sulked and refused to take part in the takeover of the U.S. embassy.

Nor is Ahmadinejad always truthful about his contributions to the 1980-1988 war against Iraq. There are now doubts about his pre-election claims that he joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp and took part in cross border operations with special forces inside Iraq, near Kirkuk, during the war. Despite all the bragging prior to the elections, his post-election presidential biography makes no mention of the guards. Instead it refers to him as a volunteer with the Baseej, which is of far lower rank and qualification, who "served in several roles on the front line, especially combat engineering".

Ahmadinejad's former right hand man Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh stated in a May 2008 interview with the Financial Times that Ahmadinejad "has never been a member or an official member of the Revolutionary Guards." He mentioned that Ahmadinejad served as a member of the Baseej, where because of his civil engineering degree he helped with "engineering".

Ahmadinejad seems to feel that he has a chance to survive his fight against his opponents within the regime. Recently, that fight has centered on Ahmadinejad's trusted ally and former chief of staff, Esfandiyar Rahim Mashai. A figure whom many of the clergy and conservative establishment find controversial, he has drawn their ire with much venom and force. So far Mashai, with Ahmadinejad's help, has resisted several attempts at his ouster. Ahmadinejad is likely to go on fighting, and not just for Mashai. If Mashai is removed now, the blow to Ahmadinejad's legacy and the deterrent to his potential allies would damage his chance for political influence after he leaves office.

For now, when it comes to Ahmadinejad, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has decided to adopt a policy of containment. But what are the limits of Ali Khamenei's containment policy? Ahmadinejad's survival depends on his ability to fight, but also on his ability not to exceed Khamenei's patience. This may be an impossible position for the president: he must keep fighting to survive in the short term, but his act of fighting annoys the supreme leader in a way that seems to guarantee long-term failure.

If you want to know how much longer Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has in office, simply measure the distance between Khamanei's current patience with the president and the point at which he loses it, then divide by the speed of Ahmadinejad's bull-like charge toward the finish line of his own political demise.