Ahmadinejad: A study in
obstinacy By Iason Athanasiadis
TEHRAN - The West is just coming to know
the resoluteness of Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad as he doggedly sticks to his beliefs
with regard to Iran's nuclear program, despite the
weight of international and domestic pressure
building up against him.
To friends and
colleagues who have known Ahmadinejad for a long
time, though, his perseverance in the face of
daunting odds comes as no surprise.
"Mahmud has not changed in the 30 years
I've known him, at school and at university,"
Saeed Hadian told Asia Times Online, saying that
Ahmadinejad had an obstinate streak and
justice being served. "He's still the same
On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad
continued the plunge into a spiral of
confrontation with the West as he rejected a
European offer to provide Iran with a light-water
nuclear reactor in exchange for Tehran giving up
nuclear enrichment activities. Iran's nuclear
dossier is before the United Nations Security
Council, with the possibility of sanctions
Ahmadinejad compared the European
offer to giving "a four-year-old ... candies or
walnuts and taking gold from him in return".
While the populist rhetoric went down well
with the large, open-air audience he was
addressing in the central Iranian city of Arak, it
is only likely to anger further a US
administration seemingly hell-bent on imposing
sanctions on Iran as a first step toward depriving
it of the full nuclear cycle.
unlikely to disturb Ahmadinejad, a previously
obscure, mid-ranking politician from a
conservative background whose surprise victory in
last June's presidential elections prompted
rumblings of fear. Iran's middle and upper classes
were convinced that Ahmadinejad would order a
social crackdown, which has yet to materialize.
But they predicted correctly that the country's
economy would suffer from capital loss.
Last summer, Ahmadinejad made an explosive
entrance into the international spotlight. He
directed a combative address to the UN General
Assembly in September, made controversial comments
that called into question the Holocaust and the
future of Israel in November, and was the first
Iranian president of the Islamic Republic to
address a letter to his US counterpart.
Two weeks ago, he confounded everyone by
exhibiting a heretofore unseen liberal side and
seeking to cancel a law that bans women from
entering stadiums. He was immediately overruled by
the country's clerical leadership, but reaped
great popularity among the crucial secular,
liberal Iranian electorate that is traditionally
opposed to what he stands for.
Ahmadinejad was treated like a rock star in
Indonesia, by an audience enchanted by the kind of
direct rhetorical style that evokes memories of
1960s liberation ideology. In the Arab world too,
increasingly people are expressing admiration for
how Ahmadinejad is dishing it up to the West in a
way that their own governments do not dare.
"Iran has often been at the receiving end
of ultimatums from foreign powers," said Cyrus
Safdari, an independent Iranian analyst. "The
politicians who stood up to these ultimatums are
treated as heroes, and the ones who caved are
still considered to be traitors."
did a blacksmith's son from rural Iran manage to
become an Islamic iconoclast who defied the West
and the Iranian mullahocracy alike to deliver a
highly controversial nuclear program to his
country? How did an intensely pious war veteran
manage to be elected in an poll marked by the
absence of religious symbolism and accented by his
rival's promise to continue the social
liberalization characterized by the Mohammad
Naser and Saeed Hadian, two
brothers who are childhood friends of the
president, describe him as unchanged from the time
they knew him. Still buddies, they all grew up
together in the dusty streets of Narmak, a solidly
middle-class neighborhood of east Tehran. Naser
recalls playing soccer with the talented
Ahmadinejad and other children.
He was as
obstinate as a lad as he is now, said Naser.
"[Now] everyone is against him," said Naser, who
studied with Ahmadinejad at the Elm-o Sanat
University. "From the super-secular elite to the
super-religious elites, they have all turned
against him. And he doesn't care. He says, 'Let
them come, let them vote against me, I have the
support of the people.'"
Ahmadinejad's temperament is the following
anecdote, told by another acquaintance. In 1997,
with newly elected president Khatami spearheading
a rollback of hardliners, Ahmadinejad taught
engineering classes at his alma mater, Elm-o Sanat
University, proudly sporting a Palestinian
kaffiyeh (scarf) around the campus. While
kaffiyehs are standard symbols for the
pro-Palestinian cause in the West, in Iran they
also represent religiosity and a commitment to the
hard right wing of the Islamic Republic.
To have worn one in the relative
liberalism of a university environment at the peak
of the reformist wave indicated his single-minded
commitment to the founding principles of the
During the eight-year
reformist period, Ahmadinejad worked his way up
the provincial governorship ladder, eventually
becoming mayor of Tehran. His tenure was marked by
the improved organization of what is one of the
world's most chaotic and traffic-choked cities.
In recognition, he was short-listed for an
international Mayor of the Year competition in
2004, even as well-off Tehranis cracked jokes
about how, if he could, Ahmadinejad's
conservativeness would have extended to his
instituting segregated male and female sidewalks,
elevators and graveyards in Tehran.
their part, upper-class Iranians sneer at his
common looks and ordinary-Joe appearance, even as
Ahmadinejad himself stresses it to appeal to large
segments of the electorate.
But those who
know him prefer to dwell on his "indefatigable
habits of work" and "financial incorruptibility".
A modest man, he inhabited an unpretentious home
in the same neighborhood that he grew up in and
drove a Paykan, Iran's cheapest, mass-produced
A talented soccer player and
straight-A student, Ahmadinejad sailed through
educational and professional hierarchies with
great ease. When he inherited the president's
office, he completed a process of donating all the
lavish Persian rugs that used to decorate it to
Tehran's carpet museum.
Ahmadinejad's on-the-job performance has won him
more fans since he became president, his threat to
reform the system and root out corruption has
created powerful enemies, including influential
Some believe that Ahmadinejad's
systematic purge of the foreign service,
provincial governorships and key economic posts -
and his appointment of mostly former Revolutionary
Guard comrades to those offices - is angering an
older generation of clerics who see significant
elements of their power base being eroded.
Further criticism is prompted by the fact
that, whereas the time has probably come for the
second revolutionary generation to start taking
over, Ahmadinejad's abrupt manner in effecting
this transition is ruffling too many feathers.
In the holy city of Qom, the primary
center of Shi'ite scholarship in the world,
Ahmadinejad has reportedly upset a number of
senior figures. One senior cleric, Ayatollah
Sanei, is more liberal than others and believes in
equality between men and women and tolerance among
religions. But when a conversation with Asia Times
Online turned to Ahmadinejad and his recent,
crowd-pleasing decision to allow women back into
soccer stadiums for games, Sanei refused to
"I didn't sign that letter," he
said, referring to a letter issued by at least
four grand ayatollahs that condemned the
president's decision and instantly granted him
impeccable liberal credentials. "I didn't get
involved in that, it was all a game."
private pictures taken in 1977 in shah-era Shiraz,
a young, beardless Ahmadinejad stands next to his
friends. Wearing scuffed running shoes and an
ordinary brown jacket and sporting a solid,
left-hand parting in his hair, he looks every inch
the opinionated man he went on to become. He
appears obstinately dowdy, every inch the
mardomyar (people's man) that he went on to
Iason Athanasiadis is an