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
"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 insistence on justice being
served. "He's still the same Mahmud."
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.
That is 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
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.
Last week, 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
"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."
So how 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 Khatami era?
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
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
Typical of 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 Islamic
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.
For 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 car.
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.
While 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 comment.
"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."
In 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 become.
Iason Athanasiadis is an Iran-based correspondent.