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.
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.
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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.