By BARIN KAYAOĞLU
March 15, 2011
He is seen as “unstable,” “ultra-conservative,” and “fanatical” by many Westerners. Five years ago, the Sunday Times Magazine had called him the “Apostle of the Apocalypse.” And he has done much to contribute to that image with his offensive remarks about Israel and the Holocaust.
His domestic woes are numerous as well: He faces a bloodied but nevertheless powerful reformist camp that demands economic, social, and political liberalization. The hardliners, on the other hand, struggle to keep things exactly as they are in the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, according to a leading expert, the prospects of Iranian economy look “bleak.”
In this context, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to be recasting himself as the “third way” in Iranian politics; a pragmatist. In fact, since his disputed re-election in June 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad has done much to underscore his pragmatic side.
For example, rumor has it that he tried to reach an accommodation with the opposition amid the post-election protests in June 2009. And, according to some Wikileaks documents, he may have paid a personally high price for it.
Recently, Mr. Ahmadinejad took the unpopular – but quite necessary – decision to lift government subsidies on gasoline, electricity, and foodstuffs to divert the funds to infrastructural projects.
Also a testament to his pragmatism, Mr. Ahmadinejad still negotiates with the international community over his country’s controversial nuclear program.
Of course, the President of Iran also shows his socially conservative side from time to time. For example, four months ago, he called for Iranians girls to marry at the age of 16.
But the evidence for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s pragmatism is becoming too great to ignore – especially if we look at his closest political partner, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. In July 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad appointed Mr. Mashaei, a former political advisor and his son’s father-in-law, to the post of first vice president. This was a very important move because Mr. Mashaei, also a pragmatist, is pretty much hated by the hardliners – the folks deemed close to Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Many reasons exist for Mr. Mashaei’s hard time with the hardliners: In 2007, he attended a ceremony in Turkey, where women performed a traditional dance (public female dancing and singing is still forbidden in Iran). Then, in a shocking episode in 2009, Mr. Mashaei pointed out that Iran’s problems were with the Israeli government and not the people of Israel, whom he considered “Iran’s friend.” In the Iranian context, that comment has extremely pro-Israel overtones but Mr. Ahmadinejad never chastised his subordinate.
Thus, no surprise that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei struck down Mr. Mashaei’s appointment as first vice president in July 2009. But a defiant Ahmadinejad stuck to his guns and asked his first vice president to stay on board as chief of staff.
That was hardly the end of it: In August 2010, Mr. Mashaei made extremely nationalistic remarks to a group of Iranian expatriates: Iranian culture, according to Mr. Mashaei, had saved Islam from “Arab parochialism” after the Islamic conquest of Persia in the late 7th century. Mr. Mashaei’s words were so out of line with the hardliners that even Ayatollah Mohammed-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s “spiritual mentor,” condemned them. Another hardline cleric berated Mr. Mashaei for his “pagan nationalism.”
Now, the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei duo is preparing to host Iranian New Year (Now Ruz) ceremonies in Persepolis, which disturbs the hardliners for its subtle emphasis on the country’s pre-Islamic past. Rumors in Iran have it that dozens of heads of state and government will attend the festivities, a party that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s reformist predecessor Mohammed Khatami could have only dreamed of hosting.
To be sure, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hardly the radical reformer that Iran badly needs or the bold bridge-builder that the West desperately wants. If anything, his boldness on Israel and the nuclear standoff has worked against Iran as well as the West. More important, profound tensions exist between the Iranian people’s desires and their country’s political and economic realities. Down the road, those tensions may become too insurmountable for a pragmatist to resolve.
Nevertheless, it would not be too foolish to expect a few more surprises – pleasant as well as unpleasant – from Iran’s controversial president before the end of his term in 2013.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.