The upset victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's June 2005 presidential elections has caused a sea change in the Islamic Republic. His stunning success dwarfed in every respect ex-president Mohammed Khatami's similarly unexpected electoral triumph in 1997. But, while Khatami defeated mainly an unpopular rival--a religious fundamentalist, political hardliner, socially conservative and business-oriented bazaari--Ahmadinejad's coup involved beating four betterknown, more experienced, more qualified and more attractive rivals. Of the eight presidential candidates approved by the Council of Guardians, Ahmadinejad was the darkest of all dark horses in every respect. According to a poll taken four weeks prior to the elections, less than 5 percent of likely voters favored him compared to 36 percent for ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani--the defeated challenger in the run-off elections. (1)
In retrospect, assuming the elections were fair and free, the surprising reversal of fortunes probably reflects three main factors. First, it was a normal swing of the ideological pendulum back to the right, reversing the leftward shift made in 1997 from Rafsanjani and a conservative Majlis to Khatami and his reformist coalition. Second, it was a manifestation of the voters' disenchantment with Khatami's lackluster and dissatisfying performance. (2) Third, it was Ahmadinejad's astute use of political lessons learned from the mistakes of both Mohammed Reza Shah and Mohammed Khatami who ignored the people's craving for both economic welfare and political participation. He promised them both.
Interestingly enough, however, while the Islamic Republic's four pivotal power centers--the Supreme Leadership, the Experts Assembly, the Council of Guardians and the National Expediency Council have meanwhile remained essentially the same both in personnel and structure, the accidental president has been able to leave his indelible imprint on Iran's politics and society by adopting a maverick management style at home, and a defiant foreign policy towards the West. Internally, he has wrested power from an estimated 20,000 of the entrenched nomenklatura that had monopolized various levels of bureaucracy since the revolution, and given it to his military and security bedfellows; he has shifted political forums from urban centers and sophisticated audiences to small towns, deprived masses and less educated crowds; and he has taken some independent personal positions openly different from those of other government leaders. Iran's foreign policy facade has also undergone a substantial overhaul as a result of his bombastic tirades, his confrontational maneuvers and a new cadre of diplomatic envoys. (3)
This review attempts to examine Ahmadinejad's performance in light of his campaign platform by analyzing him as a leader, describing the process he has followed, discussing the message he has tried to convey and examining the product he has thus far delivered. Although it may appear too early for such an appraisal, it is warranted for two reasons. First, his administration's record so far may offer a clue as to the eventual outcome of his four-year tenure. Second, in one of his campaign speeches, he himself promised that people should see the results of his economic policies in one year, i.e., six months ago.
THE MAN: A GOD-LINKED LEADER
Ahmadinejad is a political phenomenon sui generis in many respects. First, although a man with presumably higher education in modern science and cherishing western titles of doctor and professor before his name, he is also a superstitious neo-fanatic who not only believes in the apocalypse, but also expects the physical appearance of Imam Mahdi any day soon. In his view, Iran's Islamic revolution has a distinct mission to pave the way for him to come and rescue the righteous from the wicked. Although he has tried to keep himself at a distance from some obscurantist mullahs who claim that the Hidden Imam personally chose him, Ahmadinejad has not shied away from insinuating a mystical link to the Almighty. (4) In a twelve-page report to the supreme leader on his one-year performance record, he invoked God's name fifty-one separate times. (5) There is no speech of his where God's help is not repeatedly solicited.
His second distinct characteristic is his sharp intuition. A political neophyte who may not resemble a Western politician in attire or allure, he knows almost instinctively how to act like one: He is adept at never giving a yes or no answer to a pointed question; he always evades responding to a difficult inquiry by shifting to a diversionary one of his own; he knows how to skirt an issue which may get him into trouble; and he goes on a foreign trip whenever he faces major trouble at home.
Third, as much as he is admired in the East and South, he is vilified in the North and West. To millions of displaced Palestinian refugees, poor Arab masses in the street and a vast majority of Washington-bashers among the Non-Aligned Movement, he is a savvy and indisputable hero. Third World revolutionaries and Muslim Jihadists have embraced him as their icon. In his trip to Indonesia, he was treated like a movie star. He has been boasting about being adoringly embraced by students in East Asia and Africa and repeatedly applauded on his recent trip to Latin America. (6) His supporters call him a tsunami. After several well-received trips to various countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, he claimed that the Third World is presently looking up to Iran as a "role model" and asks Iran to offer them the "methodology and solutions on managing the economy, culture and overall development." (7) In the West, however, he has been spared no vile epithet: He has been called a lunatic, an apocalyptic crackpot, a bigoted bumpkin, a clown, a nut-cake, a madman, a freak, a pipsqueak, a Hitler-incarnate and "Ah-mad-in-the-head." (8) A partisan critic has even accused him of seeking happiness in the genocidal destruction of the Jews. (9) The best back-handed praises he has received in the West have been limited to such epithets as clever, calm, intelligent, a champion of counterpunch and a master of circumlocution.
Fourth, as a personal success story, Ahmadinejad has been an authentic Iranian Horatio Alger. Born and raised in a large, poor and working class family, he has obviously overcome formidable obstacles to rise from hardscrabble roots to the zenith of the Islamic Republic's exclusive politics through deep personal convictions, spiritual determination and physical courage. But, in terms of intellect, nimble-mindedness or new ideology, he is a lightweight. Even his ardent admirers concede that he has never expounded a distinct moral or social agenda. He is not a charismatic leader, a group captain or even a good judge of character. He is the first and the only president of the Islamic Republic who was not able to get his initial cabinet nominees approved even by a like-minded Majlis. And he has been unable to enjoy full cooperation even from a conservative Majlis as the assembly has repeatedly rejected his cabinet nominees, proceeded to impeach one of his cabinet ministers, opposed some of the bills he has submitted and approved certain bills that he had opposed.
Finally, contrary to what some of his critics may think, he is neither delusional nor deceptive. He is ascetic, absolutist, opinionated, intolerant and something of a religious zealot with a Himalayan-size ego, and a ravenous appetite for publicity. Like all self-appointed servants of God and saviors of man, he considers temerity as a religious obligation. His ever-present jaunty smile and relaxed manner display an air of supreme self-confidence, if not plain hubris, presenting a defiant face of the Islamic Republic. (10) His narcissistic personality has driven him toward a sort of megalomania reflected in his recent insipid joke that "the world is becoming rapidly 'Ahmadinejadised.'" (11)
THE PROCESS: ALL THINGS FROM ALL MEN
Ahmadinejad's agenda has been neither distinctly original nor particularly sound. His Islamic orthodoxy, enmity towards the United States and even his infamous call for wiping Israel off the world map all echo the goals, wishes and words of Ayatollah Khomeini himself in the 1970s and 1980s. His embrace of the Palestinian cause and support of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Shia factions in Iraq are both part and parcel of the position taken by all the Islamic Republic's leaders since 1979. His populist blandishments echo the writings of Ali Shariati--a rabblerousing advocate of Islamic egalitarianism prior to the 1979 revolution. His anti-banker and anti-rich-economic posture--and particularly his latest mind-boggling pro-natal "large-family" advocacy--are copied from Mir Hossein Mussavi, a leftist wartime prime minister and a Khomeini protege. His advocacy of infrastructure build-up, and even his much drummed-up "justice shares" are echoes of ex-president Rafsanjani's positions and campaign promises. His emphasis on peace, love and happiness is a page taken from Khatami's book. His messianic vision of the impending return of the Twelfth Imam reflects the teaching of his guru, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi--with perhaps a subtle theological undertone regarding Iran's current theocratic oligarchy. His ardent defense of Iran's nuclear program reflects a nationalistic pride reminiscent of Premier Mossadeq's 1951 oil nationalization. And even the tedious oratory style of his speeches resembles that of the traditional house-calling preachers (rozeh khans).
His possible claims to originality might be his down-to-earth, close-to-people and micro-managed stewardship at home, and a novel and undiplomatic approach to diplomacy. At home on various occasions, he repeatedly boasts that he and his cabinet have visited four-fifths of Iran's provinces and some 300 towns around the country, and have approved 3,300 projects related to local needs. (12) On the foreign...