Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud (1956–)

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Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud

The 2006 Time magazine person of the year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has rapidly grown in stature from a virtually unknown entity to one of the most well-known political leaders on the world stage. The current president of Iran, Ahmadinejad is arguably the most controversial personality in Middle East politics. Whether as a result of his incendiary claims about the falsity of the Holocaust or because of his unabashed defiance on what he terms as Iran's solemn right to continue its nuclear energy program, Ahmadinejad's political career has remained shrouded in controversy and confrontation. This controversial persona is mainly a product of his severely acrimonious relationship with major Western nations (mainly the United States). Ahmadinejad's political journey from an obscure mayor of Tehran to a central player in the ongoing power relations between the West and the Middle East has seen several tumultuous shifts and turns, both on the international and on the domestic front. Thus far, he seems to have weathered these political storms and challenges quite successfully. But Ahmadinejad's legacy is far from determined. In all certainty the outcome of the global impasse over Iran's nuclear energy program will represent the key variable in how he is remembered in history and how his legacy is recorded.


Early Life and Education

Ahmadinejad was born 28 October 1956 in Aradan, near the town of Garmsar in southeastern Iran. Son of an ordinary ironworker, he is the fourth of seven brothers. Ahmadinejad and his family migrated to Tehran in 1957 when he was a year old. He completed his undergraduate career in the field of civil engineering at the University of Science and Technology in Tehran in 1975 and went on to attain his master's degree at the same university in 1986. A year later, Ahmadinejad earned a doctorate in the field of engineering and traffic transportation from the same university. This doctorate represented the culmination of his personal education, though he did re-join the academy at a later stage in his life.

The Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War

Much like most Iranian baby-boomers, the career of Ahmadenijad both as a politician and as a social activist was most influenced by the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. Ahmadinejad's personal involvement in the American hostage crisis in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution remains unclear. Several of the 52 Americans who were held hostage in the United States embassy say they are certain Ahmadinejad was among those who captured them. However, he has always denied this claim and he continues to insist that he was absent at this event. However, regardless of the uncertainty regarding Ahmadinejad's direct involvement in the hostage crisis, the aftermath of the 1970 revolution represents a major event in the development of his political career.

Following the 1979 revolution, Ahmadinejad became a member of the Office for Strengthening Unity (OSU) between Universities and Theological Seminaries, a largely conservative student-led organization that aimed to strengthen the nexus between religious and secular modes of education in post-revolution Iran. Also at this time, he is reported to have joined the Revolutionary Guards voluntarily. After the onset of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, Ahmadinejad served in covert operations in western Iran during the first six years of the war. Ahmadinejad was a senior officer in the Special Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards, stationed at Ramazan Garrison near Kermanshah in western Iran. This was the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guards' "Extra-territorial Operations," which was responsible for mounting attacks beyond Iran's borders. He later joined the special forces of the Islamic Revolution's Guards Corps (IRGC) in 1986 where he served in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps intelligence and security apparatus.

The Beginnings of a Political Career

Ahmadinejad's first official stint in the field of politics came about when he was elected governor of Maku and Khoy cities in the northwestern Azerbaijan province in 1992. He also served as an advisor to the governor general of the western province of Kurdistan for two years in the early 1990s. While serving as the cultural advisor to the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education in 1993, he was appointed as governor general of the newly established northwestern province of Ardebil. He served this post from 1993 to 1997. However, after these years of steady progress, Ahmadinejad's political career took a hit in 1997 when the newly elected administration of President mohamed khatami removed him from his post as Ardebil governor general. Following this setback, Ahmadinejad returned to the academy and assumed the position of a full-time professor at the ilm-o San'at (knowledge and industry) University in Tehran. He also became a full-time member of the scientific board of the Civil Engineering College of University of Science and Technology. Ahmadinejad continued to teach as a full-time professor and remained primarily involved in the academy for six years, from 1997 to 2003 respectively.

In April 2003 Ahmadinejad re-entered the political sphere when he was appointed mayor of Tehran by the capital's municipal council. Ahmadinejad's mayoral career was a major passage in his political career. This was the first time that he was afforded a serious opportunity to articulate his vision for the country and to present his ideology for his fellow Iranians. As mayor, Ahmadinejad undertook several important measures that put his social ideas on display. His policies were primarily aimed at re-ordering the moral and social fabric of public life in Tehran. To that end, he introduced major reforms that sought to render the performance of religion in the public sphere more visible and vibrant. For example, Ahmadinejad turned several cultural centers into prayer halls during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Moreover, as a symbol of reclaiming and reinforcing Iran's Muslim identity, Ahmadinejad ordered several fast-food restaurants to close their businesses and he required male city employees to sport beards and wear long sleeves. He also instituted the separation of elevators of men and women in the municipal offices.

Although the regulation of religion and the institution of proper moral performance in the public sphere represented major parts of Ahmadinejad's political efforts, he also devoted a considerable amount of energy toward economic reform and corruption in Tehran. To sum up, Ahmadinejad's self-projection as a firebrand populist determined to fight for the economic rights and well-being of the less-privileged—an image that truly flowered during his presidency—was already at work during his career as the mayor of Tehran.


Name: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Birth: 1956, Aradan, Iran

Family: Married; two sons, one daughter

Nationality: Iranian

Education: B.S. (civil engineering), 1975; M.A., and 1986, Ph.D. (transportation engineering), 1987, all from the Science and Technology University, Tehran


  • 1992–1993: Served as the governor of the cities of Maku and Khoy
  • 1993–1997: Served as governor general of the province of Ardebil
  • 1989: Became a member of the Board of Civil Engineering Faculty of the Science and Technology University in Tehran
  • 2003–2005: Served as the mayor of Tehran
  • 2005: Elected the president of Iran

The Presidency

Ahmadinejad was elected Iran's president in June 2005. He ran his campaign on a platform of populism, religious revival, and the reinvigoration of Iran's cultural capital. Pitted against the relatively moderate and pro-Western Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad propounded a narrative of middle-class populism and staunch defiance against any undue Western interference in Iran's internal affairs. Heavily backed by the conservative religious clerics in the higher echelons of Iran's political hierarchy, Ahmadinejad's rhetorical positioning resonated strongly among two key constituencies in the Iranian electorate: 1) Religious conservatives in the rural areas who saw Ahmadinejad's message as the perfect antidote to the encroachment of westernizing trends in the country and 2) the disenfranchised middle-class in urban areas who were desperate for a reversal of the dismal economic situation in the country. This enthusiastic reception for Ahmadinejad's political platform translated into electoral success in June 2005 when he emerged victorious in the presidential elections by a decisive and wide margin.


Ahmadinejad's influences and contributions to Iranian society must be considered with a major qualifier: his subservient position to the Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah ali khamenehi. Although Ahmadinejad is Iran's president in theory, in practice foreign policy, nuclear policy, and the central economic policies are ultimately under the jurisdiction of the supreme leader. In fact, it has also been argued that Ahmadinejad was Khamenehi's favored candidate for president precisely so that the latter could exercise complete political and social control over Iran without having to deal with any ideological impediments, such as those posed by relative moderates such as Rafsanjani and Khatami. However, despite Khamenehi's practical dominance over the political scene in Iran, Ahmadinejad nonetheless represents a major player on both the domestic as well as the global political front.


Mr. President,

Don't Latin Americans have the right to ask, why their elected governments are being opposed and coup leaders supported? Or, why must they constantly be threatened and live in fear? The people of Africa are hardworking, creative and talented. They can play an important and valuable role in providing for the needs of humanity and contribute to its material and spiritual progress. Poverty and hardship in large parts of Africa are preventing this from happening. Don't they have the right to ask why their enormous wealth—including minerals—is being looted, despite the fact that they need it more than others?

Again, do such actions correspond to the teachings of Christ and the tenets of human rights?

The brave and faithful people of Iran too have many questions and grievances, including: the coup d'etat of 1953 and the subsequent toppling of the legal government of the day, opposition to the Islamic revolution, transformation of an Embassy into a headquarters supporting the activities of those opposing the Islamic Republic (many thousands of pages of documents corroborate this claim), support for Saddam in the war waged against Iran, the shooting down of the Iranian passenger plane, freezing the assets of the Iranian nation, increasing threats, anger and displeasure vis-à-vis the scientific progress of the Iranian nation (just when all Iranians are jubilant and collaborating their country's progress), and many other grievances that I will not refer to in this letter.


Ahmadinejad's popularity among a vast segment of the Iranian population (especially in the rural areas) is a product of two inter-related factors: 1) his populist image of a leader servant whose top priority is the welfare of the less-privileged and 2) his relentless insistence on the continuance and progress of Iran's nuclear enrichment program, even in the face of massive international pressure to do the opposite. Although Ahmadinejad faces significant political and ideological opposition from Iranians both within and outside the country, and even though his political capital has somewhat eroded since his 2005 presidential election, he remains a popular leader among the masses of Iran. His popularity among Iran's common folk is largely a result of his staunch defiant stance against Western pressure on the nuclear issue. Ahmadinejad's brand of unrestrained chivalry in the face of mounting Western hostility and opposition to Iran's nuclear program is very effective in catering to a national psychology of resistance and counter-attack against an imagined Western hegemony. Therefore, it is quite ironic that the more that Western countries pressure Iran into halting its nuclear energy program, and the more that Ahmadinejad is successful in resisting and smothering this pressure, the more does his popularity as the champion of Iran's sovereignty and national pride rise in the country.

Ahmadinejad's biggest contribution to global politics is perhaps more symbolic than it is practical. By confronting the United States' demands against Iran's nuclear enrichment program, Ahmadinejad has assumed an almost iconic status of a "national warrior" who is brave enough to withstand the might of the United States. This iconic image of Ahmadinejad is not limited to the borders of Iran. Rather, in a region where most leaders are perceived as overly subservient and submissive towards the United States, Ahmadinejad has risen as the symbol of resistance against Western hegemony and domination in not only the Middle East but in a large portion of the Muslim world.


According to the Bush Administration's "National Security Strategy" document released on 16 March 2006, the United States "may face no greater challenge from a single country than Iran." This statement speaks volumes about the United States' perception of Ahmadinejad. The United States clearly views him as a threat to its national security and as a challenge to its overall standing in the broader Middle East. Furthermore, since the United States harbors and maintains close political ties with other majority Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the growing influence of a Shi'ite Muslim leader such as Ahmadinejad is obviously a cause of tremendous concern. This perception has intensified following the military confrontation between the Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel in July-August 2006. The anxiety of the United States over Iran's nuclear energy program is largely shared by most major European nations, though with varying levels. Although countries such as France and Germany have categorically stated that they are opposed to Iran's nuclear enrichment program, they are also adamant in finding a resolution to this issue through sustained talks and dialogue and not through military means.


Philosopher Charles Taylor has commented that modern social imaginaries are "the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations" (Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004, p. 23). Like most majority Muslim nations encountering the unsettling conditions and cultural vicissitudes of post-modernity, Iran is also a country caught in the midst of competing social imaginaries. On the one hand, the Iranian social imaginary continues to remain enveloped in a narrative of the pristine golden past that attempts to appropriate the literary, cultural, and religious legacy of its foregone past.

On the other hand, the cultural shifts and transformations of modernity have compelled Iranians to re-think their place in the world, and to invest their time and energy in keeping pace with the increased scientific and rational focus of the modern social imaginary. The figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad epitomizes the tensions, challenges and aspirations associated with the competing social imaginaries that stand before the Iranian nation-state. His firebrand political posture toward the West and his insistence on furthering Iran's nuclear program testify to his highly modern, scientific and rational social imaginary where he perceives the scientific progress of his country as the marker of its cultural progress. On the other hand, his call for the reinvigoration of "proper" religious practices in the Iranian public sphere and his strong emphasis on reviving the moralizing subjectivity of Iranian Muslims signify the vitality of communal religion to his social imaginary. These competing social imaginaries need not be dichotomous. In fact, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's political career has shown, competing social imaginaries can and often times do act as complementary dyads as opposed to conflicting dichotomies. The extent to which Ahmadinejad continues his success in juggling, negotiating, and resolving these competing social imaginaries still remains to be seen. However, so far, he seems to be doing well.

Other Sunni countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan also perceive Ahmadinejad with a certain degree of angst and trepidation, mainly because of his growing popularity not only among Shi'ites but also among Sunni populations in the region. Ahmadinejad's charismatic personality is seen by these Sunni leaders as a political threat and a potential disturber of the prevalent power dynamics in the Middle East. These fears and anxieties will surely multiply if Iran were successful in attaining its nuclear ambitions. Another key element involved in the world's perspective towards Ahmadinejad is the war in Iraq. The more that Ahmadinejad is seen as making political inroads into the Shi'ite leadership and populous of Iraq, the more does his growing influence become a cause of concern for the United States, Europe, and Sunni nations in the Middle East.

However, not all nations in the world harbor a negative opinion about Ahmadinejad. Generally, international leaders who are openly hostile or opposed to the current United States government view Ahmadinejad highly favorably. The chief example of this favorable impression is the country of Venezuela and its leader, Hugo Chavez, whose amicable relations with Ahmadinejad are well known. In general, Ahmadinejad is regarded quite highly in several Latin American countries, mainly because of the anti-American sentiments prevalent in that region and the way in which Ahmadinejad is perceived as a bulwark against an imagined United States and western imperialism.


Ahmadenijad's legacy is difficult to predict. Much will depend on how the controversy over Iran's nuclear enrichment program plays out, and how that impacts the triumvirate relationship between Iran, Europe, and the United States. Moreover, in addition to Iran's tussle with America and European countries over the issue of nuclear arms, Ahmadenijad's legacy will also in large measure be determined by the progression of domestic politics within Iran. As evidenced in the unfavorable outcome of the recently held local body elections in the country, Ahmadenijad will soon need to deliver on his promises of economic growth and social reform in the country for him to leave behind a memorable legacy. However, although several variables in the formulation of Ahmadinejad's legacy are yet to be determined, one can safely predict that his firebrand mode of politics and international diplomacy is sure to have a lasting impact on the contours of the Middle East's relationship with the West. Moreover, regardless of whether Ahmadinejad succeeds or fails in his goal of re-ordering Iranian society into an economically vibrant, religiously fervent, and militarily robust nation, he will be remembered as a dogged resistor of American hegemony and power.

From another perspective, Ahmadinejad's legacy will also be open to competing intra-Iranian interpretations. The people of Iran (both within and overseas) are deeply divided on their vision for their country. Certainly, several Iranians vehemently oppose Ahmadinejad's call for a stringently religious public sphere or for a cuttingly confrontational attitude toward the United States and the West. However, even the most liberal Iranians residing in the West seem supportive of Iran's nuclear enrichment program, as anxious as they might be about its potential consequences on the world stage. According to them, if countries like India and Pakistan can have nuclear weapons, why can't Iran do the same?

Nevertheless Ahmadinejad's legacy in the thoughts of those who oppose his vision for the country will in all probability be decisively negative and unfavorable. They will view the period of his reign over Iran as a dark moment in the country's history when the gradual development of a liberal society in Iran as cultivated by Ahmadinejad's predecessors Rafsanjani and Khatami was brought to a halt and supplanted by a more doctrinaire and rigid national ideology. On the other hand, Iranians who agree with Ahmadinejad's political, religious, and foreign policy ideas and those who feel inspired by his call to resist the hegemony of the West will likely remember him as a national hero who served the national and security interests of the country with valor and courage. The point being that the most determinative factor in the construction of Ahmadinejad's legacy is the opinions of those who will articulate his legacy and render it public.

Although Ahmadinejad's legacy will vary considerably in both form and content, people will be united in accepting his central role in re-shaping and indeed re-defining the power dynamics underlying Iran's relationship with the Sunni Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Whether Ahmadinejad goes down in history as a smart, bold, and decisive leader who challenged the might of the United States successfully or whether he is remembered as a rash, radical, and foolhardy leader who destabilized the globe and created conditions for the isolation of Iran on the world-stage still remains to be seen. However, regardless of how his legacy might be defined, he will go down in history as a central figure in the political history of the Middle Eastern whose presidency represented a major chapter in the evolution of Iran's relationship with the rest of the world, especially the United States.


Amirpur Katajun. Iranian Challenges. Paris: Institute for Security Studies, European Union, 2006.

Jafarzade. Ali Reza. The Iran Threat. President Ahmadenijad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis. New York: Palgrave, 2007.

Keddie, Nikkie R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Martin, Vanessa. Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran. New York: St. Martins Press, 2000.

                                             SherAli Tareen