Iran's populist president
Last Updated March 13, 2006
"We did not have a revolution in order to have a democracy."
campaign quote from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press)
Call him the unexpected president. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory in Iran's presidential run-off election stunned many observers. He was not nearly as well known as many of the candidates he'd beaten in the main presidential vote earlier in the month. And he certainly did not have the national profile of the cleric he outpolled in the run-off, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
There were immediate allegations of electoral fraud. But Ahmadinejad did appear to have the hearts and minds of many of Iran's poor and working-class. The son of an ironworker, his campaign focused on improving the economy and fighting corruption.
In a country with double-digit unemployment, Ahmadinejad's message found a sympathetic audience, especially among rank-and-file Iranians who'd seen little improvement in their dismal standard of living since the Iranian revolution of 1979.
But his emergence into the media spotlight has grabbed the attention of some westerners. Former American hostages allege the new Iranian president-elect was one of their captors in the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Four men say that after seeing Ahmadinejad on television they have no doubt he was involved. A fifth man was convinced after seeing a photograph of him, and a sixth hostage does not claim to recognize him at all.
There's also no question that he also had the backing of the country's religious elite, the conservative clerics who are the true powerbrokers in Iran. For while Ahmadinejad is not a cleric himself (the first non-cleric to hold the job in 24 years), his background reveals a man who seems to display much the same orthodoxy.
The 49-year-old Ahmadinejad is the fourth of seven children, born in Garmsar, southeast of Tehran. He went to university in Tehran, eventually getting a doctorate in engineering and traffic planning.
Following the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah, he joined an ultra-conservative group that was set up by an ally of the country's new supreme ruler, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
An 'Islamic socialist'
With the outbreak of war against Iraq in 1980, Ahmadinejad was quick to volunteer. He joined the special forces of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and was eventually appointed a senior officer in the Special Brigade of the Revolutionary Guard. This unit mounted attacks in Iraq and crushed dissent at home.
"Religious democracy is the only path toward human prosperity and it's the most advanced type of government that humans can ever have."
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, June 26, 2005
Over the years, he has established himself as someone intent on restoring Islamic influence on everyday life in Iran. He co-founded the Islamic Society of Students and was an instructor with the Basij youth militia, who act as a kind of morality police, enforcing social restrictions such as Islamic dress codes for women.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Ahmadinejad held a series of posts overseeing areas in the country's northwest region. He was removed as governor of Ardebil in 1997 and went back to university life.
But in 2003, he was plucked from the halls of academia and appointed mayor of Tehran. He brought a kind of Islamic socialism to the sprawling city, improving local services and trying to improve the choking traffic.
But reformists also remember a mayor who cracked down on Western influences in the city – a mayor who closed many cultural centres and required others to become religious centres.
As mayor, Ahmadinejad closed fast-food restaurants and required male and female employees at Tehran's municipal offices to use separate elevators. In short, he reversed many of the changes brought in by previous reformist mayors.
He also had the editor-in-chief of a Tehran daily fired because he would not let Ahmadinejad use the paper as a mouthpiece for his presidential campaign.
His campaign advertising, which was notable for its complete refusal to reach out to reformist voters, often featured him praying and addressing veterans of the Iran-Iraq war.
Analysts say he doesn't appear to know much about foreign policy matters.
What the future holds
So how much of a hardliner will President Ahmadinejad be? His first news conference following the run-off victory did not provide the clearest of answers.
Yes, he planned to continue moving forward with Iran's nuclear energy program. But he also pledged to continue talks with the European Union, which (like the U.S.) is worried that the program's true intent is to develop nuclear weapons.
No, he does not see the need for any relationship with the United States. But he quickly added that he wanted to "examine the possibility of Ö relations."
Ahmadinejad also tried to reassure the reformists worried that he will bring in a Taliban-style government and institute a nationwide social and political crackdown. "No extremism will be acceptable in popular government," he said.
But subsequent events suggested that Ahmadinejad appears uninterested in appeasing the world … or its worries over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In early 2006, his government escalated the confrontation by confirming that it had resumed small-scale uranium enrichment. Ahmadinejad's defiance prompted Russia and China to join the United States in referring the matter to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
In the end, what Ahmadinejad says is less important than what he does – or more accuractely, what the ruling clerics let him do. After all, it is the clerics who have the real power in Iran. The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Guardian Council already have veto power over all crucial policies proposed by Iran's government, including the president.
Observers point out that, with Ahmadinejad's election, all of Iran's main state institutions are now in the hands of hardliners. The last bastion of Iran's reformists – the presidency – has been occupied by a man who appears determined to resurrect the spirit of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
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- Official Title:
Islamic Republic of Iran
1.648 million sq. km
75,629 sq. km
2,400 km along the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, also 740 km along the Caspian Sea
Mostly arid or semi-arid, subtropical along Caspian Sea
Mostly a central desert basin surrounded by mountainous rims
Head of State:
Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei
Head of Government:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Population - July 2005:
65 and over: 4.9%
Life expectancy at birth:
Male - 68.58 years
Female - 71.40 years
Literacy (15 and over):
Gross Domestic Product:
$552 billion US (2005)
GDP by sector (2002):
Population living below
40% (2002 est.)
CIA World Fact Book