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Ahmadinejad's Legacy in Iran: Unemployment, International Isolation and Nuclear Standoff

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

How eight years have passed: It turns out that time flies even when you’re suffering. On Friday, Iran will bid farewell to the man whom many hold directly responsible for their economic distress. To his critics, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also gets the credit for having brought about a conservative revolution in the government ministries, for damaging the education system and for putting Iran at risk of war.

When Ahmadinejad ran for election in 2005, he relied on the slogan “We can,” in the style of United States President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan. But nobody really ascertained just exactly to what he was referring. The relatively young candidate – he was 49 at the time – won the exalted position after a term of just two years as mayor of Tehran.

Ahmadinejad, presumably, does not intend to take a break from politics. It will be at least four years before he will be able to run for president again and if the Iranian political tradition of two consecutive terms as president persists, he will have to wait for eight years. But time, as we’ve just said, goes by quickly and he could yet come back.

Ahmadinejad’s original surname, Saborjhian, refers to the simple trade of dying threads for weaving carpets. His father was a grocer and barber in a small town in the arid Semnan province at the foot of the Alborz mountain range; He moved to Tehran and changed the family name to Ahmadinejad, which implies a connection to the family of the Prophet Muhammad.

According to Ahmadinejad’s official biography, in 1976 he registered for engineering studies at the University of Science and Technology in Tehran, and 20 years later was awarded a doctorate in transportation engineering.

It isn’t entirely clear what his role was at the beginnings of the Islamic revolution. But shortly thereafter he was appointed deputy governor of Kurdistan Province. His first significant administrative position was governor of Ardabil Province, a position from which he was removed in 1997 by the newly elected reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Ahmadinejad was elected to replace Khatami in 2005.

In that election Ahmadinejad was given the unofficial role of preventing the re-election of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who ran against him and who was then considered a political threat to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The establishment's embargo on Rafsanjani continues – he wanted to run in this election but was disqualified. Back in 2005, even the reformists considered Rafsanjani a symbol of corruption, but this year he was their front-runner until he was disqualified and Hassan Rouhani became their candidate.

In the 2005 election, Ahmadinejad was relatively unknown to the public and had never run for office: He had been mayor of Tehran, but only because Khamenei had appointed him. He won just 19 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2005 ballot, but in the second round he won a sweeping victory with about 62 percent of the vote. Analysis of the election results shows that Ahmadinejad drew his political strength not only from the poor classes, to which he appealed in his election campaign, but also from reformist circles. The latter were not pleased with their leadership’s decision to boycott the election and sought a candidate who did not belong to the ruling elite. They hoped such a candidate would advance at least part of the reforms President Khatemi had not succeeded in implementing, a failure that caused deep frustration and despair regarding the chance of establishing a more flexible regime and a flourishing economy.

The want of an alternative, the desire to thwart Rafsanjani and the massive support Khameni enlisted for him accompanied Ahmadinejad even more effectively in his re-election in 2009. The supreme leader stood behind him like a fortified wall and blocked every opposition attempt to wrest a defeat from the arms of that victory, even amid colossal voter fraud that blotted the election. The election results showed the world broad public opposition in Iran and names like Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and the Green Movement were on everyone’s lips. However, the brutal repression of the protest movement made the limits of Khamenei’s flexibility clear. Though his legitimacy was put to the test at the time, it survived.

Prepare for the coming of the Messiah

It wasn’t long before even the supreme leader realized that his support for Ahmadinejad had been a mistake and that the “pygmy” president, as his rivals call him because of his short stature, was challenging and endangering his leadership. If Ahmadinejad’s first term in office was fairly placid – though there were deep disagreements with the parliament – his second term was more like a political hurricane.

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Mohammad Bagher QalibafCredit: Reuters
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Saeed JaliliCredit: Reuters
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Mohsen RezaeiCredit: Reuters

He was blindsided when he fired Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi, Khamenei’s representative in the government, and was forced to reinstate him. His protest walkout, during which he did not come to work for 11 days, did not win him any points as it was perceived as a rebellion against the supreme leader. The latter, for his part, allowed the parliament to question the president about matters concerning the administration of the country, an interrogation that could have culminated in his dismissal. That was the first time an Iranian president tried to arm-wrestle the supreme leader publicly: Ahmadinejad threatened to reveal the supreme family’s corruption, referring to Khamenei’s son Mujtaba, who is considered the man behind the largest dirty deals in the country.

Ahmadinejad succeeded in riling the ayatollahs when he made it clear he preferred the Iranian people to the Islamic agenda. He confused the conservative clerics when he began talking about the imminent return of the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam – a kind of Iranian Shi’ite messiah. Many of them saw this as a symptom of insanity but others understood his talk as a hint that Ahmadinejad was trying to overturn the clerical regime Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini had instituted, because if the return of the Mahdi is imminent then there is no need for a supreme religious leader.

The public consolation hug he gave to Hugo Chavez’s mother at his funeral and his greetings for Nowruz, the pre-Islamic Persian New year holiday – discouraged by the clerics and celebrated by secularists – angered the conservatives, who called him and his supporters part of a “deviant current” and accused them of subverting the Islamic revolution. Ironically, now at the end of his term in office, Ahmadinejad is looking like the reformists’ ideological ally.

Muddled ideology and troubled economy

Ahmadinejad has been under the most fire because of the economic crises into which he toppled the country even before the strict sanctions were imposed last year, but it should be remembered that he had inherited a difficult economic legacy. The unemployment rate climbed from 11.2 percent in 2005 to 18.7 percent in 2007 and the public debt, which constituted 27 percent of the GDP in 2004, stood at 18.2 percent last year. The main complaint against Ahmadinejad is that he wasted the state’s revenues, which during his term in office stood at about $630 billion, on grandiose projects and emptied the country’s coffers without building a decent infrastructure that would enable Iran to hold up under the sanctions regime.

This is the legacy Ahmadinejad will pass along to his successor this week, along with the ticking nuclear package. The expectation of this election in the West has postponed the threat of an attack on Iran until now, on the assumption that the supreme leader, the final arbiter on this issue, will want to set in motion a plan that will rescue Iran from the economic crisis, which would help not only the new president but also his own survival. Some of the eight candidates who have been permitted to run in the election, among them Khamenei’s advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, have publicly criticized Ahmadinejad’s arrogant foreign policy, which “has trod on every sensitive blister, did not advance Iran by even a single step and only increased the sanctions.” Candidates have also voiced criticism of his Holocaust denial.

This criticism might indicate that Khamenei is indeed interested in a change. It is still too early to say if a new direction of this sort is indeed taking shape, especially as none of the candidates is proposing to relinquish the nuclear program. But at the very least, things will not be dull.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the high-level meeting of the General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York September 24, 2012.Credit: Reuters
Ahmadinejad's eight years in power.
The six candidates for Iran's June 14, 2013 presidential election: (from top left) Mohammad Gharazi, Mohsen Rezaei, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Hasan Rowhani, Ali Akbar Velayati, and Saeed Jalili. Credit: AP
Iranian candidates pose for a group picture after a live debate on state TV in Tehran on June 7, 2013, ahead of the upcoming presidential elections.Credit: AFP

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