Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Mar 31, 2006
The ultimate martyr
By Pepe Escobar

TEHRAN and QOM, Iran - Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has been very quiet lately - at least for his standards. But may no outside observers doubt his popular appeal.

After last Friday's prayers at the University of Tehran, he chose not to use the VIP exit and decided to mingle with the crowd, surrounded by only a few bodyguards. There was nothing to

disguise him from the sartorial shabbiness of his audience, except that his face was beaming like a saint's. There was bread for the famished, and an old gentleman on a soapbox was spraying perfumed water over the masses. In these biblical circumstances the president was so enthusiastic that he almost boarded one of the lime-green buses available free of charge for the faithful, until someone in the security detail reminded him that he, after all, was the president.

Behesht-a Sahra, the "Paradise of Sahra", the largest martyr cemetery in the whole of Islam, southeast of Tehran near the highway to Qom, ranks as one the most extraordinary sights in the world: hectares and hectares of tombs of martyrs, or "barefoot soldiers" who reached eternal glory in the name of the Islamic Revolution, now enveloped in an eerie silence barely disturbed by the whistle of the desert winds. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's enormous mausoleum - a sort of Shi'ite cathedral now being renovated into a revolutionary theme park - is only a few minutes away.

No wonder virtually every visitor to the Paradise of Sahra nowadays is an Ahmadinejad supporter. In the Islamic Revolution scale of values, to die as a martyr is an even greater honor than to live as a good, practicing - and in most cases poor - Muslim. The president himself might have yearned to die as a martyr; but now he'd rather bask in worldly glory, as the beggars in the (oil and gas) banquet still regard the 49-year-old son of a blacksmith, self-described "street cleaner of the people" as the true believer who keeps the flame of Khomeini.

It was not by accident that the first thing Ahmadinejad did after he won the presidency was to pay his respects to the martyrs at Behesht-e Sahra, and then to Khomeini's shrine. The ultra-pious double act was complemented with a first cabinet meeting - photo opportunity included - staged at the tomb of Imam Reza, the fourth Shi'ite imam, and the only one buried in Iran, in a spectacular shrine in the holy city of Mashhad.

The theocratic nationalism power play
Ahmadinejad, the former Revolutionary Guard, may reach passionate outbursts ayatollahs can only dream of, but the fact of the matter is that ultimate power in Iran's theocratic nationalism will always lie firmly in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And the supreme leader, Tehran insiders confirm, has in fact downgraded the president from first-class to economy. Ahmadinejad is now a so-called "domestic" affair.

It was the supreme leader who proclaimed Iran's nuclear program "irreversible". Ahmadinejad only assented - later on. In the past few days, the supreme leader has multiplied public references to the "hard as steel" resolve of the Iranian nation against "global arrogance". Ahmadinejad, who is currently on his 10th provincial visit - in the southwest - after he launched a campaign of "bringing the government closer to the people", just sticks to vague accusations against "enemies" who should "apologize to Iran for their insults. They accuse the Iranian nation of warmongering, and this is the biggest insult."

It is the anointed prince (who could not win an election), secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Larijani, who's in charge of defining the scope of the upcoming US-Iran negotiations on Iraq. Foreign policy - and a "consultant" role in the nuclear negotiations - is the domain of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, the pragmatic darling of quite a few in the West who nonetheless lost the June 2005 elections to Ahmadinejad.

Rafsanjani is now being rewarded for his own version of martyrdom-lite - to the benefit, of course, of the Islamic Republic. In the second round of the June elections, all classified government polls were declaring Rafsanjani would lose. He was tempted to withdraw. But he didn't. The White House and the US State Department were on overdrive spinning mode, branding the Iranian elections a sham.

Rafsanjani played the part of loser to perfection. When the supreme leader upgraded even more the already-powerful role of the Expediency Council, which oversees every government action, Rafsanjani became the ultimate winner; after all, he is the chairman of the council. It was Rafsanjani who publicly announced that Iran would "break down the colonial taboos against using nuclear energy peacefully" - a unanimous decision made by the council.

As an indication of how north Tehran's Western-educated upper middle class, as well as diplomatic circles and foreign observers, were detached from the real sentiment in Iran, nobody saw it coming - the pious, the apolitical and the downtrodden voting en masse for Ahmadinejad. But a few cynical Tehran-based analysts have an alternative take. According to them, Ahmadinejad was destined to win from the start, even before the first round.

The clerical oligarchy knew how unpopular they were. So why not facilitate the emergence of a populist - so the excluded could vent their anger and renew their faith in the revolution? It was a question of renewing the faith in the concept of velayat-e-faqih - the ruling of the jurisprudent - according to which government by the pious and for the pious is nothing but an expression of the will of God; thus it must be isma (infallible). Ahmadinejad's pious credentials were beyond doubt; and better yet, he was a "street cleaner of the people".

Take me to the Mahdi on time
Contrary to Western perceptions, the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic dabble in a very complex game involving various competing circles or power.

Ahmadinejad may be the perfect embodiment of the militaristic strand of the theocracy. His military background in the Revolutionary Guards formed his world view. He lived the eight-year hell of the Iran-Iraq War in full. He deeply believed that the Islamic Revolution was fighting for its life against the "apostate" Saddam Hussein. At the same time, he is fundamentally a believer in the Mahdi - the 12th hidden Shi'ite imam whose Great Occultation began in the 10th century and whose return is imminent to, in essence, save mankind from itself.

It was a rainy Tuesday night in Qom, but the sprawling Jamkaran Mosque in the outskirts of town was absolutely packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over Iran, many of them camping out on the cold concrete with little to no infrastructure. According to Shi'ite tradition, if you come to Jamkaran 40 Tuesdays in a row, with no interruption, you will "see" the Mahdi. This particular Tuesday was more special than others; it fell one day before a holy day, the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Muhammad (in the officially proclaimed "Year of the Prophet", according to the Iranian government) and two days before the anniversary of the death of Imam Reza, the one buried in Mashhad.

So no wonder Jamkaran was at fever pitch. The mosque dates from the year 1050, after a very poor farmer claimed he had seen Imam Mahdi and envisaged a mosque built in his honor at the site. Behind the mosque there is a well. Most Shi'ites believe the Mahdi is hiding at the bottom of the well. The well is surmounted by a box over a pillar encased in metal protection. An endless stream of pilgrims bursting into tears write their vows or requests, attach a written supplication and drop them to the bottom of the well while feverishly kissing the square metal protection. The atmosphere is solemn and reverential. But before the Islamic Revolution, not many people came to the well.

The president reportedly made a state donation of US$14 million to the holy well. Tehran cynics swear - and theological students in Qom deny - that the president also told his cabinet members to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Mahdi that was duly dropped to the bottom of the well, as millions of pilgrims have done for centuries. Ahmadinejad even has his own roadmap for the return of the Mahdi; he drew it himself. According to Shi'ite tradition, the Mahdi will rise in Mecca - not in Qom - where he will preach to his close followers (Jesus Christ puts on a guest appearance), draw up the armies of Islam and finally settles down in Kufa, Iraq.

I will only settle for a caliphate
Ahmadinejad's ultimate spiritual mentor remains Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who is the dean of the Educational and Research Institute of Imam Khomeini, a very influential hawza (theological school) in Qom. It's impossible to interview Ayatollah Yazdi - officially because of "new government rules", unofficially of his own volition.

The crucial election of the Council of Experts (86 clerics only; no women; no non-clergy) will take place this coming summer, by universal vote. It's the Council of Experts that chooses the all-powerful supreme leader. Influential people such as former presidential candidate Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi and former imprisoned philosopher Shoroush are terrified: according to them, Ayatollah Yazdi is trying to influence the outcome of the elections to take over power.

"You see, it's a circle," said a ministry official insisting on anonymity. "The people elect the Council of Experts, but only religious people can run. The Council of Experts elects the leader. The leader elects the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council filters the presidential and the parliamentary elections. And people believe they are electing somebody."

In the event of taking over power, Yazdi would implement "real Islam", as he sees it. He does not believe in Western democracy. He wants a kelafat - a caliphate. Ayatollahs like Yazdi are simply not concerned with worldly matters, foreign policy or geopolitical games; the only thing that matters is work for the arrival of the Mahdi. The ayatollah is on record saying he could convert all of America to Shi'ism. Some of his critics accuse him of claiming a direct link to the Mahdi, which in the Shi'ite tradition would qualify him as a false prophet.

US researcher Dr Muhammad Legenhausen, who has lived and taught in Qom for more than a decade, speaks fluent Farsi and is married to an Iranian, is one of the top scholars at Yazdi's hawza. By telephone, he declined an interview, saying he's "not interested".

Ayatollah Yazdi is also the spiritual mentor of the Hojjatieh, a sort of ultra-fundamentalist sect whose literal reading of Shi'ite tradition holds that chaos in mankind is a necessary precondition for the imminent arrival of the Mahdi. Ahmadinejad may not be a Hojjatieh himself, but he totally understands where they are coming from.

Ahmadinejad's slightly more worldly mentor is Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh - his closest adviser. Samareh, also a former Revolutionary Guard, met the president during the Iran-Iraq War, in Khuzestan. Then he came under the wing of, once again, Ayatollah Yazdi, who sponsored him for entering the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (one of his jobs was to teach the "psychology of infidels"). He has also spent many years at the Intelligence Ministry.

Samareh's allegiance is first and foremost to Ayatollah Yazdi - not to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. He's always right behind Ahmadinejad - a sword of Damocles over every minister, ambassador or high official. Every day they pray together at the mosque at the presidential palace.

Hail against the infidels
Ahmadinejad, a second-generation revolutionary, ruffled some very powerful, first-generation clerical feathers - extremely zealous of their power bases - when he embarked on some sort of pogrom at the Ministry of Foreign Relations, the Ministry of Finance and the provincial governorship level. Most of these key posts were handed over to former Revolutionary Guards - his old mates. That was a bad diplomatic move.

A dinner last weekend in north Tehran's Zafar neighborhood drew in filmmakers, urban planners, businesswomen, economic analysts. There was not a single reference to Ahmadinejad politics. The conversation centered on what's going on in the great world cities, on poetry, film and literature, and on how Iran looked and felt during the 1970s. Books on Persian art and architecture were carefully reviewed.

These men and women are part of the new worldly Iranian elite - the quintessential Islamic Republic version of a "leftist". Iranian "leftists" are US- or Canada-educated, in favor of total freedom of speech, liberal democracy, deregulated economy, a strong role for private enterprise and foreign investment, a strong voice for women and a strong civil society. In sum, they embody post-modernist Islam. They go on with their lives in spite of Ahmadinejad.

Well-connected intellectuals and businessmen in north Tehran cannot help but mock his accent, mock his shabby suits, and even swear Ahmadinejad was personally responsible, in the early 1980s, for summary executions of political prisoners in Evin prison - Iran's version of Abu Ghraib. But as the Revolutionary Guards' press office in Tehran is more than happy to acknowledge, his countrywide popular base of support remains undiminished, in the tens of millions, from the Pasdaran - the Revolutionary Guards - to the Bassijis, the hardcore paramilitary militia, also known as "the army of 20 million", and expanding to the pious, apolitical, downtrodden masses, mostly rural but also urban (in sprawling south Tehran, for instance).

There's one huge problem, though. He's not delivering - in economic terms. As a ministerial government official put it, visibly anguished, "of course he is an honest man. In his declaration of assets, mandatory in our constitution, he put only his old car [a rickety Paykan from the 1970s] and a small house. But he does not have the personality for the job."

The masses were totally excluded from the late shah's secular, Westernized, petrodollar banquet. They kept getting nothing under the revolutionary, clerical oligarchy that never implemented in practice the rhetorical slogans of Islamic solidarity. Former president Mohammad Khatami, for all the appreciation of his "dialogue of civilizations", did nothing to put more mutton kebab on people's plates. Every major decision - even in domestic policy - remains with the supreme leader.

The economy remains atrophied, dependent on bazaaris and bonyads (foundations) that ultimately respond to the supreme leader. According to a US-educated economic analyst, who insists on anonymity for his own protection, income tax accounts for less than 7% of the state's budget, deficits are underestimated, inflation could easily spin out of control and the private sector is atrophied compared with the omnipresent state.

Ahmadinejad's much-taunted plan last year to "put oil revenues on people's plates" was ditched: it would lead to an explosion of inflation. He couldn't even place his own man at the crucial Ministry of Petroleum. As another government official put it, "It's hard to believe we have to import 60% of our gasoline from abroad. The previous governments built too many mosques and not enough refineries."

The worldly, secular Ebrahim Yazdi, former Iranian foreign minister (under Khomeini) and current secretary general of the Freedom Movement of Iran - an opposition party banned from contesting the latest elections - tries to sum it up. "Ahmadinejad has failed his promises of economic justice. Under Khatami, at least we had long-range planning and investment in the private industrial sector. Ahmadinejad is in favor of the welfare state, a 19th-century idea. We have a proverb in Persian: 'A good year could be judged by the spring.' Ahmadinejad's 'spring' says it all."

Nine months into the Ahmadinejad administration, Iran's political apartheid is still more than evident. For all of the president's populist rhetoric and his outsider posture, it remains a case of the khodiah (our people) against the gheyreh kodiah (the others), insiders against outsiders. In many aspects, foreign outsiders cannot shake the impression of an austere, melancholic, suffocating society carrying the weight of 27 years of a historical, sociopolitical and religious experiment gone wrong.

The majlis (parliament) could invoke its constitutional powers and sack the president before this coming summer. Tehran insiders say there's no evidence of a white coup - at least not yet. The outspoken president may persist - in his own mind - in a battle against infidels, while personifying to the letter the prized Shi'ite cosmology of suffering as the only way to reach paradise. The last thing Iran's clerical-political establishment need at this delicate moment is for the ultimate "martyr president" to martyr the nation into the status of ultimate global outcast.

But it all goes way beyond Ahmadinejad. It's as if Iran as a whole needed someone to deliver the nation from its current plight. That certainly won't be Imam Mahdi.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Messages of hope from Iran
(Mar 26, '06)

A frenzied Persian new year
(Mar 22, '06)

Irreversible Iranians
(Mar 18, '06)

In the heart of Pipelineistan
(Mar 17, '06)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110