Remembering Mahmoud: Iran’s Ahmadinejad Rides Into a Nuclear Sunset

The man who was for a time the bête noire of Israel and the West steps down on Saturday, bringing a tumultuous eight-year presidency to an end

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Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Escorted by bodyguards, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to well-wishers as he attends an annual nationwide pro-Palestinian rally marking al-Quds Day in Tehran on Aug. 2, 2013

Shortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office as Iran’s President eight memorable years ago, a walk-up window appeared in the face of a building just off a leafy square in eastern Tehran. “President’s Public Relations Office,” the sign read, but the window functioned more as a kind of post office. Five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. the clerk stationed there accepted letters from ordinary Iranians who traveled for hours, sometimes days, to deposit their requests to the first Iranian President who bore a resemblance to themselves.

This is not as scary as it might sound. Iranian political culture had been the playground of Persia’s elites for more than a millennium, and for all the egalitarian slogans of the 1979 revolution, remained so in the Islamic Republic; a chapter title in one of the better books about modern Iran was telling: “The Mullah Wore Beautiful Shoes.” So was the shorthand for a businessman with connections: “the son of a cleric.” In that context, it becomes easier to grasp the profound early populist appeal of the banty pol who leaves office on Saturday.

Ahmadinejad lived in the modest townhouse he grew up in, right around the corner from the walk-up window. He wore a zippered jacket to work. Everything about him — including the taunts of moneyed north Tehran swells that he needed a bath — suggested that this was a man who understood the concerns of workaday citizens, who were nonetheless gratified when he asked them to write down their specific needs and bring them by in person.

Seven out of 10, according to the man in the window, asked for money.

Mind you this was back when Iran was still flush, years before the sanctions on oil sales and international banking transactions crippled the economy and sent the rial reeling. But even when it was still awash in petrodollars, the Islamic Republic had been a fiscal basket case, a command economy (80% of which is directly controlled by the state) dependent on petroleum sales for the hard currency it then used to import gasoline. Every Iranian knew that Turkey, the next-door neighbor with the same number of people and a fraction of the natural blessings, had become an economic titan during the 30 years Iran ran in place. What Iran led the world in, according to U.N. figures, was opium addiction. When Tehran wanted to raise the quality of life, it began providing hot lunches to civil servants, who dutifully wrapped up the plates of rice and carried them home to the family as dinner.

Nuclear power, Israel … all the preoccupations that formed the West’s views on Ahmadinejad barely registered as controversies inside Iran. By the time the new President put out his call for epistles, he had already called the Holocaust a myth and been quoted saying Israel should be “wiped off the map.” He might not have actually uttered the phrase — it’s entirely possible it was a mistranslation of a less vivid saying (that Israel will disappear amid “the sands of time”) — but the point is he never denied the quote, so pleased was he by the uproar that surrounded him like a force field. He was entirely comfortable standing at the center of controversy, smiling his smug smile.

So it was that Ahmadinejad returned Iran to the role many Americans, at least, found familiar and even comfortable: archvillain. After his 2005 election, there was a flurry of reports that Iran’s new President had been among the students who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979, precipitating the hostage crisis that still defines the relationship three decades later. The reports were not true, but the newcomer’s abrupt arrival on the international scene — out of nowhere — was embraced as helpful and clarifying by those not entirely sure what to make of his predecessor, the librarian Mohammed Khatami, a reformist President who spoke not of the Great Satan but of a “dialogue between civilizations.” Where’s the fun in that?

Politically, Ahmadinejad truly was a product of the fringe. I first saw him at Friday prayers on the campus of Tehran University, campaigning in the center of a small cluster of the Basij, a nationalist irregular militia, and other regime loyalists who showed up there each week. He had been mayor of Tehran for two years yet registered so feebly in the presidential electoral reckoning that a week before election day the leading reformist daily did not even include him in its candidate roundup. But he was catching fire below the radar, his campaign posters done in austere black and white, and prime-time campaign video a truly moving portrait of a man who savored contact with common people.

“I saw him on television,” a shopkeeper named Jafar Shalde told me later, in a Caspian Sea town called Shaft. “I just looked at him and saw he was just like us. So I told everybody I knew — for example, my kids — I told them to vote for him.”

He didn’t travel very well, though. When Ahmadinejad went to New York City each year for the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. journalists lined up to engage him in interviews. Most came away befuddled, unable to square his supremely confident manner with a frame of reference so far from their own reality. Iranians know regime hard-liners talk mostly to one another, reinforcing their own peculiar worldview, which outsiders can take or leave. But as Iran’s nuclear program became one of the world’s major preoccupations, his insistence on his own reality aggravated the situation.

It was always true that, as President, Ahmadinejad had almost no power over the nuclear program, which remains under the direct control of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, the unelected cleric who holds ultimate power in Iran. But Ahmadinejad was entirely appropriate as its spokesman. His was the face of Iran’s lurch to the right. The jackboot suppression of the Green Movement four years ago was carried out on his behalf, to assure the re-election of a candidate — a veteran of both the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, a man of the people who visited a different province every second week, always setting out oversize boxes to collect all those letters (200,000 poured in at the poorest province of them all) — Khamenei must have thought almost too good to be true.

Turns out he was. In his second term, Ahmadinejad broke with the Supreme Leader, challenging the dominance of conservative clerics while building a cadre of his own. The infighting went on for years, and if it was at times entertaining — at one point involving allegations of sorcery — it was because it was playing out on the far-right fringe of the political spectrum where Iranian politics had been allowed to drift.

By then, the U.S.-led sanctions were in place, and with its banking system frozen Iran was bartering tea from India in exchange for oil. The economy that Ahmadinejad had promised to make responsive to working women and men — “to put oil money on the sofre” or dining cloth — was a shambles. And guess who got the blame? The June election was won in a single round by the candidate who most emphasized the need to end Iran’s isolation, and on Saturday, Ahmadinejad will attend the inauguration of Hassan Rouhani, a man who is everything the departing incumbent is not: a cleric, worldly, educated abroad, fluent in English and long a fixture of Iran’s ruling elite.

Rouhani tweets: “Talking impudently against the enemy is not the solution.” And: “The country is now encountered with a 42% inflation as well as unemployment. #Rouhani” Who has time for a letter anymore?

35 comments
Yvonmoua
Yvonmoua

Ahmadinnejad  was a great danger evil he was the young brother of  Kim Jong UN.  He want to wipe Israel out off the map.  Kim Jong UN  wanted wipe USA out off the map too. Iran's new president will be Hitler of Germany.

ArielAyalaVera1
ArielAyalaVera1

Ahmadinejad was  a great leader, and wasn't "an easy bone, for the western world". Wish them luck. The US would do anything in their power to bring instability, conflict and eventually a  war to the region....

ninetendo.wii
ninetendo.wii

Maybe they should put him on the cover of Rolling Stone next?

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Only TIME Magazine would portray Ahmadinejad as 'riding off into the [whatever] sunset.'

The reality is that he was completely out of touch with reality, and expounded upon philosophies that relegated him to, "8th Century Dimwit" status. 

If anything, Ahmadinejad should be 'riding off' to 1) a hospital for a long overdue CAT scan, and then 2) an asylum for lifetime commitment.

Lavrentii
Lavrentii

"He was entirely comfortable standing at the center of controversy, smiling his smug smile."

I have always thought of Ahmadi Nijad as a poor man's George W. Bush.

A "W" that grew of humbly, who actually experienced combat in a long and horribly brutal war and survived, chemical weapons attacks and all.

Yes, he is smug, and arrogant; bobs his head a bit, squints the eyes, etc.

A poor man's "W". They could almost be twins, separated at birth living in two different worlds.

Which man has a truer grasp of human potential and character?

adworth444
adworth444

Netanyahu is a kettle calling the pot black. How many times he brought himself into power and why was He allowed to put himself back into power three times? Even in America a president cannot run for re- elections after being in power for two terms but they choose to tell other what kind of leadership they should run in their country? It's about time this tumor to be removed out of Middle east. This shows how American foreign policy has failed in Muslim countries and now Muslims use Democracy to over throw the Western puppets in Middle East. This has led to USA lose it's grip and allies in muslims countries. Keep labeling muslims as terrorists until America realize they have lost muslims trust to those who are not as bias as USA. America has become a nation of mockery because the Middle east has awaken from their hypocritical Agendas and it's conspiracies against Middle Eastern and muslims at large. This is the reason Some of the biggest U.S. embassies will close, including those in Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are based. The U.S. embassy in Afghanistan will also close. So will embassies in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Amman, Jordan; Muscat, Oman; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Algiers, Algeria; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Sana'a, Yemen; and Tripoli, Libya, according to security warnings issued by those embassies. Two consulates in Saudi Arabia will also close, in Dharan and Jeddah, as will a consulate in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.America will continue to live in fear because they know well that they have jeopardize other nations true democracy to protect their own selfish interest as it support the biggest oppressor in middle east( Israel ). It will come a time when America will have to choose one nation ( Israel) over other middle eastern true democracy.

A-passerby
A-passerby

Dear Mr Vic,

Just like your peers, else-where in the West, you managed to have a swipe at Mr Ahmadinejad for the last time: Would that help to get promoted early, or getting extra remuneration, I wonder, who knows! Based on your occupational feeders & enforcers of unwritten rules in Western journalism; the more politically pervert and corrupt politicians or political leaders are, it seems, the more easier it becomes for you & your peers to write plenty of b***s**t about. It is just the way things are in the West; you are simply the ugly product of the system you write for!

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

This is the first article I've read on Ahmadinejad where the author actually knew that the title of President  in Iran is almost entirely ceremonial: all power rests with the dictator, the supreme leader for life Khamenei. The President's job is to be a mouthpiece for Khamenei.

RememberOctober29
RememberOctober29

What a stupid, moronic title for an article...which is, of course, to be expected from controlled media.

Icansee4miles
Icansee4miles

There is an interesting book just out on Kindle; The Bahrain Protocol, in which Israel, distrustful of U.S. intentions, forms a secret alliance with Arch Enemy Saudi Arabia to take out Iran's nuclear facilities. The psychology of the Middle East, as well as the plot twists and action scenes makes it a book work reading; and it sheds light on areas never publicly discussed.

RememberOctober29
RememberOctober29

 hahaha you stupid fool!   Dr. Ahmadinezhad would have the Nobel peace prize in his hand right now if the committee, like most other institutions involving media, finance, and government wasn't controlled by Anglo Jewry, and of course, if so many lies weren't attributed to him by the controlled media....little bush of iran...that's almost as moronic as the title of this article.

futureinjeopardy
futureinjeopardy

@adworth444 The state of Israel is the only true free democracy in the Middle East.  They do not repress their own people or anyone else.  Women are treated as equals and minority citizens have equal rights.   It is in the best interest of the United States and the world to support Israel to their fullest extent. It is a place that the rest of the Middle East should strive to be like.  

EarthView
EarthView

@WilfTarquin The presidency is not a ceremonial position in Iran. Iran is in fact not a dictatorship and it is not a theocracy. 

There are many centers of power in Iran. The president runs the everyday operation of the country. But, he does not rule over the judiciary or the military. Also, only the Iranian parliament can pass laws. Nobody, not even the Supreme Leader, can proclaim laws. So, you don't understand how the government of Iran works. In fact, it functions much better than the American dysfunctional system.

lastsolfa
lastsolfa

@WilfTarquin The premise that you think somebody somewhere has the absolute power makes your whole argument tasteless, particularly in Iran where there is a very complex network of power relations certainly with no absolute summit

RememberOctober29
RememberOctober29

Sorry it sounds like a stupid book filled with anglo jewish propaganda as usual...not surprising as stupidity is the only thing that jewry allows to get published. Saudi Arabia is an "arch enemy" of isreal? You really need to get your facts straight about how things have been set up in the "middle east"...in short, stop being stupid and think for a second

futureinjeopardy
futureinjeopardy

@RememberOctober29 Your comments destroy any credibility you would have as a commenter.  They are nothing but racist ramblings which ironically Ahmadinezhad also used a lot.  He was one of the biggest contributors to the instability of the Middle East.  

ArielAyalaVera1
ArielAyalaVera1

@futureinjeopardy @adworth444  I guess you consider democracy, 'state terrorism' bless by the US,, and the minorities 'the Palestinians  non entities', The so called "Israelis'  have sequester a whole nation in their own homeland. The land were they have lived for thousand of years...If you don't like the way they carried their religion, culture, and you want them to be as corrupt, as you are, well don't visit them. But let them live in peace, with the right to raise their children, with dignity, not to starved them with thirst and hunger, closing their doors, been bombarded and killed while sleeping....

Lavrentii
Lavrentii

@futureinjeopardy @adworth444 

Pure puke!

This bit about Israel being a democracy is irrelevant to their behavior to their neighbors and the international community.

Hypocrites, bigots, self-seekers have all risen to the top of what was once a promising, shortsighted, if misguided attempt at a Jewish homeland.  It's all about the Jews, and all about Israel. That is Israeli democracy.  A warped "Us against them/the world" weltanschauung.

The US is a democracy, and did that excuse the horrible crime of the war against Vietnam?  No!!

"Democracy" is irrelevant to international relations.  Period.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

@lastsolfa @WilfTarquin Khamenei can fire and hire anyone he likes. The previous two elections that was exactly what he did, electing a guy who probably didn't win the popular vote. And of course, it's Khamenei who hand-picks who can run for president to begin with. In theory the Guardian Council also has power, but in reality Khamenei not only heads the Guardian Council, he also hand-picks its members, and, of course, can replace them at will.

The "power struggle" this article talks about pretty much shows just how dominant Khamenei is: he disliked one of Ahmadinejads advisers, whom he considered too liberal, so he had him accused and sentenced for witchcraft. Pretty one-sided "power struggle".

Khamenei has absolute power. He is a dictator in the truest sense of the word. The president has no power, he is a dancing puppet, a window-dressing of democracy.

futureinjeopardy
futureinjeopardy

@ArielAyalaVera1 Arab Israelis who are citizens have equal rights as Jewish Israeli Citizens.  The nation of Israel's military actions are almost always completely defensive.  The Israeli's have existed as a people for much longer than the Palestinians who were simply nomad.  A large portion of the land of Israel was owned by rich Arab families who had never even seen the land and the Israelis bought that land at ridiculously high prices before they became a nation.  If the Palestinians choose to continue to elect leaders who call for the destruction of Israel they will face the consequences.  They have been offered exactly what land they want but their leaders have refused. 

futureinjeopardy
futureinjeopardy

@Lavrentii @futureinjeopardy @adworth444 That is completely wrong.  Democracy is very relevant to international relations, in some cases it is what theories are completely based on, see Democratic Peace Theory.  How can you criticize a nation that is simply making an effort to continue to exist.  Israel has agreed to a two state solution multiple times, they have agreed to multiple land for peace treaties with neighboring countries, and they have endured daily rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and have rarely struck back.  If a single rocket attack was made from across the Mexican border, the United States would be outraged and the public would demand retaliation.  This goes for literally every other country in the world.  

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@WilfTarquin@lastsolfa 

The Supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei  issued an edict (fatwa), the prohibition of nuclear weapons in Iran. Religious decree (fatwa) the Supreme leader of Iran concerning the prohibition of nuclear weapons is mandatory for the Iranian government.
 
This was reported on Tuesday, January 15, the Ministry of foreign Affairs Iran Ministry spokesman Ramin Мехманпараст declared that the West must understand the significance for the whole of Iran decree of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. «There is nothing higher than a fatwa, issued by the Supreme leader, it establishes the basis for our activities in the field of nuclear technologies», - the diplomat noted. «When the highest legal authority and power that carries out management of the entire country issues a fatwa, we all have the obligation to strictly observe it», - he added.