The Meaning Of Ahmadinejad's Rise And Fall

As Iran voted in an apparently more moderate successor, Hassan Rouhani, the country and world could look back and ask what is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's true legacy.

Bidding Mahmoud adieu
Bidding Mahmoud adieu
Christophe Ayad

The end of a term often smells of blood and defeat, and it couldn’t be more true in the Islamic Republic. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad couldn’t prevent the Revolution from taking his most trusted followers away from him, one by one.

Iranians went to the polls to pick a successor, with results Saturday showing centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani won in the first round of balloting (read more HERE on the election).

But as the country transitions to a new president, it is worth looking back on Ahmadinejad's tumultuous eight years in office, where his fall from grace was as spectacular and brutal as his ascent back in 2005.

He was given no chance right until the end. His friend, protégé, right-hand man, his source of inspiration Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie was denied the right to continue his campaign for president by the Guardian Council. Ahmadinejad himself was forbidden to speak at the commemoration of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini on June 4. The Parliament even questioned him regarding the cost of his eighth and final trip to New York for the General Assembly of the United Nations last September, where his 125-member delegation were put up in hotel rooms that cost between $400 and $700 per night. If the president refuses to respond to these accusations, the case may wind up in court.

So what mark did he leave on Iranian history? Someone who used the UN stage to call for the destruction of Israel? A man of the people who reached the top and then impoverished the middle class and working class like no one before him? Or is he just a mystical visionary who shook the Mullahs’ authority more than any other since the beginning of the Islamic Republic in 1979?

First of all, Ahmadinejad was the docile pet of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as he started wiping out the reformist movement that originated in the 1990s, back when Khatami was president. He ruthlessly carried out his task the same way he was urged to clear off the – mostly Kurdish - opposition in the mid 1980s.

Ahmadinejad is the populist buffer of a regime aware of its unpopularity. He was handpicked by the Leader to become the front man of the regime. Son of a blacksmith and born in 1956 in Garmsar (90 kilometers from Tehran), he will always be the country boy, the antithesis of the corrupted city life. He studied engineering, started his activism with the Islamists and joined the Office for Strengthening Unity that would undertake the US embassy hostage crisis of 1979. When he was designated Mayor of Tehran in 2003, no one had a clue who he was.

A modest beginning

He became famous using his keen sense of political marketing: he'd show up at city hall with his lunch in a box or dressed like a garbage man to help the janitors. After a blitz campaign against corruption, he crushed the “hotel boss” of Iranian politics in the second round of the 2005 presidential election: Akbar Hachemi Rafsanjani.

During his first months as president, he insisted on continuing to live in his modest apartment. The security services eventually convinced him to move to the presidential palace. Ahmadinejad kept wearing his everyday clothes and never gave up his straightforward manners and popular plain-spoken speech, a blend of colloquial and obsequious eloquence.

Behind his everlasting beige outfit, a family cabal started to emerge. It only became apparent during his second mandate: his brother inherited high responsibilities, his sister runs for city council in Tehran and his entourage was ever more composed of college friends and old acquaintances.

The first conflict with the Supreme Leader broke out during summer 2009 when the latter denied the nomination of Mashaei as vice president. The clash was even more sudden and violent since the Leader believed he had helped Ahmadinejad when he ordered the repression of the massive demonstrations of June 2009 against his contested reelection following the first round. Ahmadinejad kept praising the Ayatollah during his second term but was actually trying to subtly emancipate himself.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 for his promise to distribute the petrodollars to the Iranian people. Eight years later: no money, no more oil. Iran’s oil-induced revenue plummeted to half of what it was between 2011 and 2012. The production dropped to 700,000 barrels a day in April, the lowest level since 1979, a result of Western sanctions against the alleged military nuclear program. The automobile sector is the first job market in the country after the oil industry but its production was cut in half as well.

On the streets of Tehran (Desmond Kavanagh)

In a TV spot of this 2013 campaign, Mohsen Rezaie, one of the presidential candidates stated that “our country is one of the most powerful in the region and our missiles can fly over thousands of kilometers and yet we have a chicken shortage.” He’s right: Ahmadinejad has lost the support of his followers, the poor are tired of struggling to survive whle watching Iran become a global troublemaker.

The president trusted his “genius” too much and launched the riskiest and most ambitious reform since the beginning of Islamic Republic: cutting the state subsidies for the basic everyday goods that gobbled 70% of the state budget, starting with energy: gas and diesel. The price for transportation is now off the charts. In order to compensate for this drop in lifestyle, subsidies were wired to the accounts of the poorest families, but it wasn’t enough.

“We never had a president so full of petrodollars,” said reformer candidate Mohamed-Reza Aref who threw in the towel last Tuesday.

The truth is the ambitious reform led by Ahmadinejad and praised by the International Monetary Fund in 2011, could have panned out in a different context. But the president didn’t budge even as both Europe and the US were putting together the most sophisticated and severe sanctions since the apartheid era in South Africa and Iraq during the latter part of Saddam Hussein's reign, 1991-2003.

When the truth doesn’t satisfy him, the president denies it. He’s able to lie about anything: statistics, jailed journalists and opponents, college students expelled for their activities, his economic record. When invited by Columbia University in New York, back in September 2007 for a student “dialogue,” he answers a question on the homosexual repression in Iran: “We have no homosexuals in our country, I don’t know who told you that.”

He behaved the same with the world leaders. He wrote long flowing letters to George W. Bush (18 pages), others to the pope and Angela Merkel too. He loves to mingle with the crowd and had a passionate alliance with his “brother” Hugo Chavez whose funeral he attended, leaving him in tears.

Nothing seems to scare this little man (1.58 meters). He resembles those arrogant young bassidj (militias) who stop the wealthy in the street to harass them about their outfits that they deem not Islamic enough. In 2010, he fired his minister of foreign affairs Manuchehr Mottaki during his tour in Africa: the Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade was the one to inform the poor diplomat of this decision.

Tired of his whims, the “system” seemed to want a duller man, a more predictable man. Ahmadinejad's fell out of favor also because of his claims to be in direct connection with the 12th Shiite Imam Mohammed Al-Mahdi, “forgotten” in 874 and whose return would bring peace and justice.

It is the hint of an existential crisis for the Shiite clergymen in charge of leading and ruling the society since the Revolution. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi ended up forsaking him. Maybe this is the outgoing president's most important legacy: an unprecedented debate about how useful the Mullahs really are.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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