Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
He is an unlikely firebrand: the soft-spoken son of a blacksmith who still sometimes drives a 30-year-old Peugeot. But Iran's new President doesn't shrink from controversy. After winning a disputed election, he said he would continue Iran's nuclear program, called the Holocaust a "myth" and pledged to destroy Israel. | Photo: Ben Baker | Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran,

The pros and cons of this controversial man.

Once the dry winter chill passes over the low, desert plain, and spring warms the air, the rains come. In the morning mist of the coming dawn, just before Fajr prayer, a boy crawls out of his house and lets his eyes glide across the few houses and flat farmland, far into the distance, to the Alborz mountains: rounded limestone encrusting a thick, powerful foundation of granite. As he examines the sharp lines of the peaks, a beam of sunlight speeds over the mountains and bursts onto his smiling face. The boy's father, currently Mr. Sabaghian but soon to be Mr. Ahmadinejad when his family changes their name and moves tomorrow to Tehran, takes the future president's hand and leads him back inside, the sun shining on their dewed hair.

Thus was the start of the incumbent president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's life, moving from the village of Aradan to the metropolitan sprawl of Tehran, Iran's capitol. One might think Ahmadinejad retained that small-town, country-boy personality, and in fact many do. His supporters often describe him as modest ' a description he manipulates politically, supposedly replacing expensive rugs in the presidential palace with cheap ones and holding meetings in more moderately furnished Islamic shrines rather than the splendor of the palace. Indeed, it is said Ahmadinejad wanted to remain president while living in the same house he called home as mayor of Tehran until his security advised he move. Is any of this true? Well, that is always the question with Ahmadinejad.

Is Ahmadinejad, to put it plainly, a good guy or a bad guy? Though the question is moot and we will get to that, it is worthwhile to follow the thread for a moment. Ahmadinejad... says things. In a 2007 speech on the University of Columbia campus in New York City he claimed that homosexuals do not exist in Iran, "like in your country". After a slew of attacks toward him he reiterated his statement in a different way, saying that Iran is Islamic and shuns such "sins", meaning no one in Iran is stupid and amoral enough to be gay. And no one can fully wrap their head around the Iranian president's claim that the Holocaust did not happen. Whenever pressed about the issue he dodges it in the most baffling way: he simply asks why there has not been enough research to prove, conclusively, what actually occurred. When interviewers point out that thousands of photos of prison camps were taken, that Holocaust survivors are still alive, and that Germany itself has apologized in a variety of ways throughout the years for it, he simply restates his counter-question.

So he says a lot of offbeat, uncomfortable things, but is he a threat in terms of action? Or is he a positive force? With this we come back to the point that the question is moot. The way the Iranian hierarchy works is that though there are presidential elections (which are not checked by impartial parties and was a complete sham and subtle coup in Ahmadinejad's second term election in 2009), there is a man higher than the president: the supreme leader. This is his title, no joke: though the official title is simply "leader", virtually everyone prefaces it with supreme. The supreme leader is appointed through the back channels of government and is not elected publicly. He is meant to be the religious compass of the country, and being that Iran is a theocracy, the supreme leader is granted nearly unlimited power. He controls the military, the political operations of the government, the economic decisions, the laws ' all of it. It is as if Billy Graham told Obama what taxes to cut.

The current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, appoints who he wants for positions such as the head of armed forces and the head of the radio and television network, and can even dismiss the current president if need be. He decides who does what and what goes where. Ahmadinejad, if he has power at all, will align himself with Khamenei or be cast out. So when we ask what is good and bad about president Ahmadinejad, we are actually asking what is good and bad about the supreme leader, Khamenei.

The supreme leader is, bluntly, a dictator. He does, though, seem to have a progressive way of thinking for certain issues and a, one could stretch the word enormously, kindness. While Bush junior was shutting down stem cell research, Khamenei supported it; Khamenei condemned the September 11th attacks and stated that "Mass killings of human beings are catastrophic acts which are condemned wherever they may happen and whoever the perpetrators and the victims may be"; he disapproves of terrorism and despises the United States' global presence, worrying that it could easily turn ugly if a foolish American president came to power; he says that peace is the number one goal of the Iranian people. He also does not follow suit with Ahmadinejad and question the Holocaust. On the other hand, Khamenei rigs elections (as the 2009 event), regularly imprisons and tortures dissenters, and forces the traditional rules of Islam to be followed such as the segregation of men and women, the compulsory wearing of a hijab, and the penalty for apostasy (death). The fire he spits concerning certain peoples ' namely the Israelites and the believers of the domestic religion, Bahai ' can churn the stomach. He called Israel a "cancerous tumor of a state" that should be gotten rid of. "The Zionist cancer is gnawing into the lives of Islamic nations." The Bahai religion claims to be the next step beyond Islam, and thus its followers are viewed by Khamenei as apostates and must either accept Islam or die. One can go on for quite awhile about what the supreme leader dislikes, really.

In the end the supreme leader is a dictator who does what he wants. Considering he is running a nation of millions, that will stir up a hell of a lot of anger. Several parliament members threatened to resign during one of the leader's uses of extra-legislative power; there is a growing list of freethinkers who speak against him. (which is of no great concern: he simply puts them in a hole somewhere.) Most frightening, I think, is the expelling of music and the arts. Khamenei contends that music education corrupts developing minds ' even traditional Persian music. He issued a fatwa (Islamic rule) stating that no children should be taught music or art in any form until they are sixteen. He constantly orders his top men to censor networks so foreign sources of art ' you know, art: being human and being alive ' do not slip through. This behavior is typical, though. Art is free thought and free thought is dichotomous to a dictatorship. For Khamenei, Islam is the only way and do not dare to tell him otherwise.

How, I wonder, does Ahmadinejad feel about all this? Surely, being an individual human being, he has his own desires to fulfill. Being a devout Muslim, however, forces him to obey the judgments of his religious superiors. In the end I think it good for Ahmadinejad to be the head of state: nothing discredits a nation like a gaff of a president. The sensational things he says brings the world's eyes to Iran, the better to keep watch and intervene promptly if the rights of humanity or the Earth come into jeopardy; he is the periodical sign of warning to remind us of the supreme leader's cruel hands behind him. So I suppose I can explain what I think of Ahmadinejad in a variety of ways: a man of contradiction; a man who says what he wants to say, regardless of the company present; the world's most confusing historian; a backwards man following the most backward trails of his faith; a man who would most assuredly harsh your buzz at a party.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:29 PM EDT | More details


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