Person of the Year 2007
Since becoming President of Iran in August 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has adopted a provocative stance. He has questioned the Nazi Holocaust, demanded the elimination of Israel and the resettlement of all Israelis, insinuated a US conspiracy over 9/11, fomented the crisis between Israel and Hezbollah,insisted that Iran has the right to a peaceful programme for nuclear power, and threatened that this programme may not remain peaceful if Iran is attacked.
Yet, his speeches and interviews (and his personal letter to George W. Bush) are embellished with exhortations to harmony, peace, justice, spirituality, equality, compassion, and tranquility. In 2006, this (calculatedly?) mercurial mix of firebrand and philosopher fortified his position on the world stage.
Ahmadinejad was born in 1956, in a small village near Garmsar, the fourth son of a blacksmith and one of seven children. He moved with his family to Tehran, where he attended school. In 1975 he was admitted to study civil engineering at Tehran’s Science and Technology University (where he obtained a PhD in traffic and transportation in 1997).
Uncertainty surrounds Ahmadinejad’s activities during the 1979 Revolution and the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War. His official biography states he engaged in ‘political activities’ and ‘was actively present as a member of the [Revolutionary Guard] in different parts and divisions of the battlefronts’. Other accounts allege involvement in covert operations in Iraq, assassinations of dissidents, and executions in Tehran’s bloody Evin prison. (The US claims he led the seizing of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979.)
After serving regional governorships in the 1980s, Ahmadinejad was appointed Mayor of Tehran in 2003, where he reversed many earlier reforms, closing fast-food restaurants, requiring women to use separate elevators, ordering male city employees to wear beards, &c. (In 2005, Ahmadinejad was a finalist in the World Mayor contest, alongside London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone.)
Ahmadinejad’s deliberately modest 2005 Presidential bid focused on Islam, social justice, poverty, and corruption. But he also used the campaign to attack the US and challenge the UN, which he said was ‘stacked against the Islamic world’. To the surprise of many, he beat ex-President Rafsanjani, 62% to 36%. At his inauguration, Ahmadinejad demonstrated his loyalty (and subjugation?) to Iran’s Supreme Leader by kissing Ayatollah Khamenei’s hand – an unusual public gesture of respect.
Ahmadinejad’s domestic policy has combined reaction (banning Western music) with reform (allowing women to watch sports), and he continues to struggle with Iran’s economic inequalities and poverty. But it is internationally that Ahmadinejad has made his mark, strengthening relations with Islamic neighbours, fixing deals with China and Russia, and challenging the West by pursuing a nuclear fuel cycle.
Time will tell whether Ahmadinejad’s defiance of the IAEA is designed to extract concessions and credibility from the West, or to give Iran time to weaponise its research. If the latter, the US commitment to neutralise the threat may be circumscribed by overstretch in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the ability of a weakened President to persuade the world that this time WMD exist. Israel, however, will be unlikely to feel any such constraints.