Monday, November 29, 2010

Messianic or messy antics: The politics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - Part 1

I originally wrote this article for Tehran Bureau. Khamenei's trip to Ghom which is used as a reference point in a timeline, actually took place in mid-October and not 'three weeks ago.' 

This is part 1 of a series of two articles, which explore whether Ahmadinejad is a religious fanatic or a populist. Or perhaps a mixture of both. 

On a Tuesday three weeks ago, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei went to the holy city of Qom to regain some of his legitimacy as the ruler of the Islamic Republic.

In many ways it has been a difficult year for the Supreme Leader. Though the security apparatus has managed to preserve his power at the pinnacle of the regime, it has come at a heavy price. The Islamic Republic's claims of justice and democracy ring hollow now more than ever. Khamenei is no longer considered an impartial arbiter between factions in an ever-tightening circle of insiders, which now appears to include only Principlist conservatives. (NB The term Principlist which appears throughout this article refers to pro-regime conservatives who seek a return to the founding principles of the revolution. It is a translation of the word osoulgara) Even this restricted camp is unable to stop feuding despite the Leader's exhortations to maintain unity.

And perhaps most importantly, differences between the grand ayatollahs and the regime have bubbled to the surface, imperiling the religious identity of the regime. 'Today, the fate of the clergy and Islam in this land depends on and is intertwined with the fate of the Islamic regime,' Khamenei warned a gathering of seminary students and basij militia members in Qom. His speech had an uncharacteristic tone of alarm (see video below). 'If the Islamic regime is harmed in the slightest, the clergy and the Islamic jurists will undoubtedly suffer more than any other portion of the people.' He ended with words of reassurance. 'Of course, the regime is alive, the regime is standing, the regime is powerful. I say with complete confidence that the regime will triumph over all the challenges that lie before it.'

Already in early December of last year, the Basirat web site, under the control of Hojjatoleslam Ali Saeedi, Khamanei's representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), published a report decrying 'a growing rift between the grand ayatollahs and clergy [on one side], and the Supreme Leader [on the other].' This was before pro-regime thugs raided Grand Ayatollah Youssef Sanei's home and office in Qom in June and Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Dastgheib's Ghoba mosque in Shiraz in September.

So it was that Ayatollah Khamenei arrived in Qom for a crucial nine-day visit to mend his image and gain the support of senior clerics.

And where was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on this all-important day? He was in Tehran, welcoming a friend and kindred spirit -- some would say a fellow practitioner of provocative antics on the international stage -- none other than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The contrast between these two events and what they symbolize -- power through religion or populism -- raises fundamental questions about Ahmadinejad and his place within the Islamic Republic. Is he a true believer? Is he a religious fanatic hell-bent on pushing the world towards Armageddon to precipitate the coming of the Mahdi, the Shiite messiah figure? Or is he a populist using religion for political gain? The answer is not only significant for understanding the complex power structure of the regime and the fault lines between the various factions, but it also has repercussions on the future of the democracy movement, foreign policy, and the nuclear issue.

The background

The Assembly of Experts designated Ali Khamenei as the Leader of the Islamic Revolution shortly after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. Without getting into the intriguing story of how this occurred, it is important to note that Khamenei was, at the time, a mid-level cleric -- a hojjatoleslam -- and that he was transformed into an ayatollah overnight for reasons of political expediency. This fast-track promotion placed the Leader's religious credentials under a question mark which dogs him to this day. 'There was no hiding the fact that Khamenei’s religious credentials were inferior, and the decision raised the ire of the country’s clerical elites in Qom,' writes Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran’s Most Powerful Leader.

The position of Leader is enshrined in several articles of the constitution of the Islamic Republic, notably this one:

Article 5
During the Occultation of the Vali al-Asr (may God hasten his reappearance), the velayat and leadership of the Ummah devolve upon the just and pious faghih, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability, he will assume the responsibilities of this office in accordance with Article 107. 

The italics are mine. Vali al-Asr or ruler of the ages refers to the Shiite messiah who is alternately called the 12th Imam, Imam Mahdi, Imam Zaman, the Hidden Imam... He is said to have disappeared at the age of five in 874 AD, which is the start of the period of occultation or absence. Shiites believe that Imam Zaman will return to this world to bring universal justice and brotherhood. This constitutional article describes the principle of velayateh faghih (rule of the jurisprudent) from which Khamenei derives his power as a kind of 'surrogate to the Imam Zaman,' a title which is used by the regime with increasing frequency. 

But obedience to a surrogate of the Imam Zaman with questionable religious credentials -- particularly after the mass protests following the disputed presidential election of 2009 -- apparently does not come easily to some people. Khamenei felt compelled to issue a fatwa or ruling in response to an alleged follower's question on the topic last summer:

Q: Could you please explain 'commitment to the velayateh faghih.' In other words, how must we act in order to know we completely believe in and are committed to the rightful surrogate of Imam Zaman?
A: The velayateh faghih is the rule of the Islamic scholar endowed with all the necessary qualifications in the age of Occultation and is a branch of the guardianship of the infallible imams and the Prophet, and obeying the administrative orders of the [Leader] is sufficient to show commitment to it.

Other senior clerics and grand ayatollahs found the comparisons to the Prophet and the infallible imams less than evident and, after a period of equivocation, the fatwa was quietly removed from Khamenei's web site, although it still remains on some pro-regime sites, including Tabnak which is run by Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the IRGC. Not exactly the sign of a Leader entirely confident of his position within the clerical hierarchy.

Ahmadinejad is not a cleric. He is, in fact, the first non-clerical president of the Islamic Republic since the early 1980s, when Abolhassan Bani Sadr fell victim to infighting and impeachment  after a year and a half as president (he currently lives in exile in France), and Mohammad Ali Rajai was killed by a terrorist bomb less than a month after he took office.

Ahmadinejad is also the first president to emerge from the generation of veterans of the Iran-Iraq war. Not that he is recognized as a front-line warrior, despite the best efforts of his supporters and the misleading text of the official biography on his web site. Here is what Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who at the age of 22 was the commander of the Panj Nasr division during the war, had to say last year about the president's record:
Ahmadinejad does not have even one day's experience of revolutionary struggle, he did not receive even one slap for the cause of the revolution. If he did something, he should come and tell us where. Ahmadinejad did not see the war or the front. If he had been on the front for only one day, he would have boasted about it for a thousand days.
He also added:
I don't consider Ahmadinejad a revolutionary or a member of the party of God or a follower of the Leader or a manager or honest. Mr. Ahmadinejad, with all his being, fools himself and then fools everyone else.
Readers can decide whether Ghalibaf is describing a populist or not.

The Populist?

One of the most active civil movements of the past decade  has been the Campaign for One Million Signatures to abrogate gender-discriminatory laws in the Islamic Republic. And one of the most visible elements of that discrimination has been the morality patrols' enforcement of proper Islamic dress. Ahmadinejad's actions seem to indicate that he, or at least close advisers, recognized this as a wedge issue.

In early 2005, Ahmadinejad was running for president on a man-of-the-people, oil-wealth-distribution platform with the slogan 'It can be done and we can do it' (Mishavad va mitavanim). 'He cultivated his working-class image along with his piety to good effect,' writes Houman Majd in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. 'His style, the bad suits, the cheap Windbreaker, the shoddy shoes, and the unstylish haircut, [...] is a signal to the working class that he is still one of them.' But he wanted to cast his net as wide as possible by also appealing to those who seek greater freedom.

'Are our children's hairstyles the real problem facing our people now? Our children want to wear their hair any way they want. What's it to you and me,' he said in a television interview prior to the 2005 election (video below). 'We have to focus on the main problems of the country. The government has to expand the economy, calm the climate in the country, make people feel safe, support the people.'

That Ahmadinejad reneged on those promises of a more tolerant government -- that his administration in fact supported stricter enforcement of morality and hijab laws compared to the relative springtime of the Khatami years -- is a matter of record. But it is interesting that he was willing to make such crowd-pleasing statements even if they ruffled some clerical feathers.

More recently, in another television interview in June, Ahmadinejad again paid lip service to a freer society, perhaps as a remedy for his crumbling popularity. Sitting in the casual setting of the presidential gardens, the journalist asked, 'Why is it that every time we talk about culture or society, women are the first people who are targeted? When we talk about the hijab or chastity or these confrontations that take place in our society... People talk about morality patrols, hundreds of thousands of toumans in fines... just because two strands of hair can be seen or a garment has problems.'

'Let me say in one word, this has nothing to do with the government,' responded Ahmadinejad (video below). 'The government does not meddle in these things. We consider these things to be insults. To have a man and a woman walking in the streets and then someone comes up and asks, What's your relation to each other? None of your business! We don't have the right, no one has the right to ask.'

Ahmdinejad had to know that his words would trigger a wave of condemnation from conservative clerics, and perhaps he welcomed this. It allowed him to position himself as apart from the conservative clergy, a champion not only of the economically disenfranchised, but also of some aspirations of the reformist camp whom he still considers important enough to woo. 'Nobody has the right to prevent the police from acting against unsuitable hijab,' countered Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council, during Tehran's Friday prayer. 'Those who voted for you were the fully veiled people,' said Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Khatami, taking a more direct approach (no relation to former reformist President Mohammad Khatami). 'The badly veiled "Greens" did not vote for you, so you'd better consider what pleases God is not pleasing a number of corrupt individuals.' Ahmadinejad's own adviser on religious affairs, Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Nasser Biria, resigned over this issue and was subsequently reinstated following Khamenei's intervention.

A month later, on the occasion of the Chastity and Hijab Festival, the Islamic Guidance Ministry of the Ahmadinejad administration held a press conference which was related in comical fashion by the international press. At the gathering, government officials unveiled photos of male haircuts which were deemed sufficiently Islamic and therefore permissible.

So if Ahmadinejad claims that he is not responsible for the strict enforcement of hijab laws, who is?

During the heady days of the 2009 presidential race, journalist Masih Alinejad was in Tehran, preparing a documentary, and she asked the same question on a visit to Ahmadinejad's campaign headquarters near the corner of Enghelab and Vesal Shirazi streets. The response revealed more than the participants may have wanted (video excerpt below):
Younger man: Mr. Ahmadinejad came on television and said, Are our youth, their clothes and haircuts, the problem? He said we have bigger issues. But after he was elected, his opponents put morality patrols on street corners in order to tarnish Mr. Ahmadinejad. And they did tarnish him. I see young people on the streets today and they say, We have no problem, just take away the morality patrols and we'll all vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad [...].
Masih Alinejad: But the security forces are under the supervision of Mr. Ahmadinejad's Interior Ministry.
And then, in an extraordinary moment, the younger man and the older man behind the desk blurted out almost simultaneously:
Older man: No, they're under the control of the Leader.
Younger man: No, they're in the hands of Mr. Ahmadinejad's opponents.

The enforcement of morality laws is only one of the wedge issues exploited by the president in the past years.

Soccer is arguably one of the most popular pastimes of young Iranians -- men and women. In April 2006, as soccer fever attained new heights due to Iran's qualification for the World Cup in Germany, Ahmadinejad announced with great fanfare that he would lift the ban on women in stadiums. A month later, he reversed the decision, but not until he made it very clear who was responsible. 'The president has decided to revise his decision based on the Supreme Leader's opinion,' government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said.

Or take Ahmadinejad's remark on the judiciary, which has become one of the most hated institutions of the regime after months of show trials, executions, and stiff arbitrary sentences for journalists, human rights activists, or politicians. Speaking at a ceremony for the new head of the Islamic Republic News Agency in February, the president said something which most Iranians could only applaud: 'The Islamic Republic's judiciary has a dictatorial spirit. Unfortunately the relevant authorities overlook the law and pursue individuals because they have criticized such and such a member of parliament, a judiciary official, or a group. And then they say, you must be put on trial.'

His remark was not widely publicized by the state media, but the uncensored version was published by Raja News, which is run by Fatemeh Rajabi, Gholam Hossein Elham's wife. It should be pointed out that Ahmadinejad was condemning the prosecution of media outlets that were close to his government and had insulted his political rivals, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani and Assembly of Experts head Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The head of the judiciary is Sadegh Larijani, brother of Ali Larijani, and he was named to his post by Khamenei. 

Ahmadinejad has also attempted to curry favor with the people through declarations of government largesse, most notably during his record number of tours of the country. A prominent feature of his presidency, the three rounds of provincial visits he has conducted thus far (the first two rounds took place during his first term) have allowed Ahmadinejad to promote his popular message to 'put oil money on people's tabletops.'

Ahmadinejad not only announced grand projects, from public housing to water purification plants, which would translate into jobs and prosperity, but he actively encouraged the people to petition him with letters for personal aid on these trips. The government proudly announced that 2.2 million such letters were received just during the first round of provincial visits and that $250 million (250 billion toumans) had been allocated to these requests.

Reality has caught up with the disingenuous statements. Shortly after being confronted with questions about how the government could verify the validity of such large numbers of requests and assuring that '90% of those who received aid were truly deserving,' relief fund head Hossein Anvari announced in January of this year that such letters would no longer be accepted during Ahmadinejad's third round of provincial visits. In April, Hojjatoleslam Mostafa Pourmohammadi, head of the country's General Inspection Organization, said that Ahmadinejad's decrees concerning projects were 'over and beyond the government's capabilities and do not correspond to the financial means and time lines. Most of these decrees do not get off the ground and the projects face delays.'

Ahmadinejad appears to be positioning himself alongside Bolivian President Evo Morales -- who was incidentally in Iran two weeks ago -- and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in an anti-capitalist front, said Real News Network senior editor Paul Jay in a recent broadcast. During his last trip to New York for the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad met with one hundred anti-war, labor, and 'progressive' leaders, according to Fight Back News, one of the organizations present at the meeting.

The Islamic Republic's president ticked all the right boxes for the attendants -- who included former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and poet Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones -- as he declared, 'Violent capitalism is based on superiority, hegemony and violation of rights. [...] Capitalism has come to an end. It has reached a deadlock. Its historical moment has ended and efforts to restore it won’t go very far.'

'Speaking with Mrs. Ahmadinejad [Azamolsadat Farahi] and hearing the president reinforced the importance of struggling against the US campaign to isolate and demonize Iran,' Sarah Martin of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization told Fight Back News. 'I think the meeting was important because we had the opportunity to meet with so many dedicated grassroots activists from all over the country and share our hopes for peace and justice with the Iranian people through their president and his wife,' gushed Margaret Sarfejooy of Women Against Military Madness.

Nader Hashemi, author of Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy, reacted starkly to Ahmadinejad's attempts to frame himself as a defender of the poor and a Chavez-style anti-capitalist. 'It's an exercise in hypocrisy,' he told the Real News Network. '[...] The fundamental issue that matters is to maintain political power. They will invoke any argument, whether it is in favor of capitalism or socialism to rally opinion, whether globally or internally.'

Hashemi also questioned the readiness of some activists to accept that Ahmadinejad 'is leading a populist fight for the poor.' 'Ahmadinejad is trying to pass through parliament, legislation [the subsidy reform bill] that will remove subsidies from basic commodities and products, the things that the average poor person needs to survive,' he said. 'The reason he is doing that is that Iran's economic house is in a mess. He wants to reduce subsidies so that the government will have an influx of cash which it can then spend as it pleases in order to entrench its own power.'

The Ahmadinejad government's consistent efforts to crush any independent labor movement and imprison union leaders, the very representatives of the poor workers whom the president professes to defend, also belie the official line. Mansour Osanlou, leader of the Tehran Transit Workers' Union, is only the most prominent of a long list of labor leaders who have been jailed and tortured by the Islamic Republic.

Why would Ahmadinejad make public remarks that ultimately get him into trouble with the conservative clerics and other regime insiders? The answer may lie in a remarkable statement made by his current chief of staff and one of his closes advisers, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, in August 2009. 'Of Ahmadinejad's 24 million votes, 20 million are critics of the regime and they are even more serious in their criticism than the 13 million [who voted for Mir Hossein Mousavi] because those 13 million people only put the Ahmadinejad government under question, whereas the 20 million said no to the total process of the years prior to Ahmadinejad,' Rahim Mashai said. 'In reality, Ahmadinejad only had 4 million votes of approval.'

'I believe that Mr. Ahmadinejad is seeking his social base in a place where the clergy is not popular,' reformist cleric and political analyst Mohammad Javad Akbarin, who currently resides in France, told Radio Farda a few months ago. 'He prefers to attract a section of the people by employing populist methods that he has used in the past. He knows that the people do not defer to the clergy as much as they did. By making such statements, he managed to defeat Hashemi Rafsanjani [his rival in the presidential race of 2005], who was a cleric and an individual with deep roots.'

Direct link to Imam Zaman? 

'This is the government which has employed the highest level of religious discourse,' the president declared at a press conference in August. 'We are standing firm on divine goals and values.'

In another speech delivered to local leaders in Ghazvin province on November 12, Ahmadinejad said, 'All of religion and all of the universe is summarized in one word and that word is the Imam [Zaman]. All of creation is for the Imam, without whom the Kaaba has no meaning (NB The Kaaba is the small building at the center of Mecca's Great Mosque around which pilgrims turn and towards which all Muslims pray). Everyone turns around the Kaaba and the Kaaba revolves around the Imam. The way to God is the Imam. The Imam is both the path and the destination. The scent of the Imam has spread through the world and the world is rapidly entering a phase in which it will know that its only path is to be linked to the Imam.'

And then he concluded by linking the temporal to the divine: 'Therefore, work in such a way that whenever the Imam appears, he retains us in our positions.'

Ahmadinejad's actions and statements seem to indicate that, although he is not a cleric, he understands that he must endow himself with some religious legitimacy in order to appeal to the devout and, more importantly, to maintain a central place within the regime. And in this respect as well, he has not shied away from conflict with the clergy.

In September of 2005, Ahmadinejad made the first of his annual visits to New York for the UN General Assembly. While the international media concentrated on his speech at the United Nations and his comments concerning the nuclear issue, most Iranians became fascinated by what he did upon returning to the country. The president visited a number of senior clerics in Qom, among them Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, the city's Friday prayer leader. It was at Javadi Amoli's house that the infamous 'halo of light incident' took place and was forever documented in a video taken by the ayatollah's staff (see video below).

The film shows the recently-elected president sitting on the floor alongside the other congregants at the private gathering and describing his trip to New York. 'They threatened me with arrest. [...] But I said, the Agha [Khamenei] had ordered it, so the visit had to take place. They had said so many things against us that all eyes and ears were focused on us. Who is this person? When we walked in the street or entered a building, all attention was on the Iranian delegation. The others didn't even exist,' said Ahmadinejad in an understandable moment of grandstanding. But then came a more fantastical claim:
That day when I made my speech, someone who was in the audience came and told me afterwards, When you started by saying 'In the name of God,' a light surrounded you and you were inside it until the end. I felt it myself. I felt that the surroundings had suddenly changed. For the next 27, 28 minutes, the world leaders did not blink. When I say they didn't blink, I'm not exaggerating. I was watching. They were all immobile, as if a hand was holding them.
The quest for religious legitimacy had become an act of attributing sacred qualities to himself.

The clergy and other observers grumbled about the president's blatant foray in to the realm of the sacred and Ahmadinejad, true to himself, denied the incident ever occurred. 'When did I ever say such a thing? Where would I have a halo of light?' he said during an impromptu interview on a flight taking him on a provincial visit (see video below). 'Of course, anyone who repeats the word of God, well the word of God is light itself.' Government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham declared that he had never heard the president talk about a halo of light and that the video which had been broadly distributed among Iranians had been doctored. Elham, as can be seen in a still shot of the video, was not only present at the meeting with Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, but was sitting to the president's right and could not have failed to hear him. Ahmadinejad made the same denial during a presidential debate with Mehdi Karroubi in 2009. Javadi Amoli's office promptly issued a communiqué contradicting Ahmadinejad.

Last year at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of Fatemeh Zahra, the Prophet Mohammad's daughter, Ahmadinejad was again caught on tape as he took on a mantle of holiness. Standing on stage, rhythmically beating his chest in mourning, Ahmadinejad is seen conferring his blessing on a scarf by kissing it and handing it to a cohort (see video below). 'I am sorry that, after 30 years, this is the outcome of the Islamic revolution [...]', said the recently-exiled reporter who filmed the scene. 'Think of the holiness that he assumes for himself, to kiss a headscarf or a keffiyeh and present it to the people.'

Ahmadinejad's closest aides have also extolled the president's sacred qualities. Ali Alfoneh of the American Enterprise Institute recounts one such story -- featuring current First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi -- in a piece entitled Ahmadinejad Versus the Technocrats. 'In Syria, in the historical city of Basra which may be unknown to some, a Muslim told me that he believes that if there was to be a prophet after the prophet [Mohammad], it should be Ahmadinejad,' said Rahimi in the presence of Ahmadinejad in 2006. Rahimi was director general of the Supreme Audit Court at the time and the incident is also related in the Alef news site, which is run by Principlist Majlis representative and head of the legislature's research center Ahmad Tavakoli.

One group of Ahmadinejad's supporters in universities and within the clergy took a more subtle approach when they formed a grass-roots organization, Islamic Iran's Group of 72 also knows as the G-72, in late 2008. Neither the number of founding members, nor the current membership is 72, but a gathering of 72 individuals fighting for a cause is particularly evocative for Shiites. One of the most seminal events in Shiism is the martyrdom of Imam Hossein in 680 AD at the battle of Karbala, which is commemorated on the day of Ashura, the 10th of the holy month of Moharram. The battle pitted thousands of Umayyad Caliph Yazid's troops against Hossein and his companions, who according to various accounts numbered a mere 72. For Shiites, Hossein embodies the themes of martyrdom and fighting for justice against overwhelming odds. (In all fairness, the Green movement has also tried to invoke this type of symbolism, most notably in their provisional list of 72 dead protesters, which I believe was not expanded deliberately, although many more casualties had been identified. It is also interesting that Ayatollah Khamenei's favorite, and most expensive, horse is called Zuljanah, in reference to Imam Hossein's white stallion.)

In addition to the religious allusions to Ahmadinejad as a man seeking justice against all odds, the G-72 web site paints a picture of the president as a selfless man of the people. (A look at the advertisements on the web site provides an amusing and anecdotal indication of the target audience and their interests: the final season of Prison Break and the complete works of Islamic thinker Ali Shariati. More on Shariati later.) The latest post on the site quotes Tehran provincial governor Morteza Tamaddon, who accompanied Ahmadinejad on a visit to the 'common folk' on October 28 and deserves a prize in sycophancy:
As usual he listened to the remarks and grievances of the people with patience and tolerance and a smiling face. And then he would [attentively] issue the necessary orders to resolve the problems of the people whom he loves with all his being. Towards the end of the meeting, the whispers of the attendants told me something was afoot until one of them came to me and said, 'Today (October 28) is the doctor's [Ahmadinejad's] birthday.' I cast a glance at the president. He was so submerged in dealing with the people's problems that I could not allow myself to remind him of this news. After the meeting, as we and a few friends were preparing for noon prayer, I told him, 'Happy birthday, Mr. President.' And I immediately asked him, 'Mr. President, did you know that today is your birthday?' He stared at us for a moment, then a smile crossed his lips. I said, 'If I'd known earlier, I would have prepared a birthday cake.' He laughed and said, 'Instead of these things, it's best if you concentrate on the people's affairs.' Another friend jokingly said, 'Doctor, you should hand out some sweets.' He responded, 'Usually people give presents and sweets for someone's birthday, they don't receive them. But in any case, let us distribute the sweet experience of resolving the people's problems among ourselves.' [Ahmadinejad], who loves the people, even spent his birthday in sweet servitude to God's people.

For part 2, please click here.