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Profile, Times Online, December 18, 2005

Lebanonwire

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If only Iran's nuclear nutter had stuck to traffic planning
PROFILE Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The people of Aradan, a flyblown town south of Tehran where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born, never expected him to become president of Iran. They believed he would stick to his chosen profession. If only he had. The world is looking into the abyss, thanks to a man with a PhD in traffic management.

Ahmadinejad’s combustive rhetoric about wiping out Israel, denying the Holocaust and asserting Iran’s inalienable right to nuclear power — a potential cloak for developing nuclear weapons — have triggered alarm bells around the world.

As this paper revealed last weekend, Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, has ordered his armed forces to prepare for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran by the end of March, after which the country will have the technical expertise to build a nuclear warhead in two to four years.

The international storm of outrage that greeted Ahmadinejad’s comments is quite an achievement for the 49-year-old radical, whose meteoric trajectory from obscurity to become mayor of Tehran culminated in his taking office as president in August.

“He’s a tiny, wiry figure with a gaunt face and small black eyes that don’t seem to change expression,” says a journalist who followed him on the campaign trail. “He goes around in rumpled clothes and is as unsophisticated as he appears. He’s devout but he has no religious credentials.”

Some experts maintain that Ahmadinejad’s invective is solely for domestic consumption. “He’s not doing it to be confrontational,” one insists. “He’s only saying what others have said many times before. And he doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks.”

However, the president’s utterances leave little room for misunderstanding. On October 26, he said: “Israel must be wiped off the map.” On December 8, he elaborated: “Some European countries insist on saying that during the second world war, Hitler burnt millions of Jews and put them in concentration camps. Any historian, commentator or scientist who doubts that is taken to prison or gets condemned . . . we don’t accept this claim.” Europe should provide a state for “the Zionists”, he added.

Last week, he went even further: “They have invented a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religion and the prophets. The West has given more significance to the myth of the genocide of the Jews . . . If you have burnt the Jews, why don’t you give a piece of Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska to Israel . . . why should the innocent nation of Palestine pay for this crime?”

Iran’s interior minister said Ahmadinejad’s remarks had been “misunderstood”. However, his actions follow the ominous pattern of revolutionary governments: the withdrawal of ambassadors, the installation of a hardline cabinet, the overturning of reforms and the reported supply of insurgent bombs that have killed British soldiers in Iraq. Earlier this month, with talks stalled on Iran’s nuclear programme, the government announced plans to construct two more nuclear power stations.

Western leaders are now asking themselves how they misread Ahmadinejad so badly. They had pinned their hopes on the new generation of Iranians who were supposedly chafing under the restrictions of the Islamic republic, counting on a presidential victory by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the 70-year-old former president and so-called pragmatist.

Instead, with no leading reform candidate permitted to stand, a landslide swept in Ahmadinejad, who had cast himself as the Robin Hood of the devout and impoverished masses and promised to “cut off the hands of the mafia” responsible for rampant corruption linked to the Machiavellian Rafsanjani. He offered jobs for all and “petrol money on people’s tables”. It was the message the predominantly young population wanted to hear. He also had significant backing from the influential Revolutionary Guards.

Even then, the White House thought they could live with the new leader, says Geoffrey Kemp, an analyst at the Nixon Center in Washington. “Ahmadinejad’s first forays into foreign affairs tended to be dismissed as the naive posturing of someone new to the game. But the fact that he keeps repeating the same statements and adding new venom to them has got people rethinking this gentleman.”

New questions continue to emerge about Ahmadinejad’s murky past. Former hostages taken captive at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held for 444 days have claimed he was one of the ringleaders. Donald Sharer, a retired navy captain, remembered him as “a cruel individual”.

The Austrian authorities are investigating claims that Ahmadinejad took part in assassinations against political opponents, notably the exiled Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemou and two of his associates in Vienna in 1989.

The president is believed to be devoted to the cult of the 12th Imam, the Shi’ite saviour better known as the Mahdi, whose return would usher in an apocalyptic revolution of the oppressed over the forces of injustice.

Ahmadinejad was born in the shadow of the Alborz mountains on October 28, 1956, the fourth of seven children. He was one year old when his father, Ahmad decided to improve the family’s lot by moving to Tehran to work as a blacksmith.

The boy showed an early interest in reading the Koran. “He liked to go to classes but they threw him out because he was too young,” said his cousin, Maasoumeh Saborjhian. “But he would insist, saying, ‘No, no, I know how to read the Koran’.”

Relatives say his concern for the poor stemmed from personal experience. “He has tasted poverty himself,” said Mehran Mohseni, the son of another cousin.

An intelligent youth, he ranked 130th in the nationwide university entrance exams in 1975 and was admitted to the Iran University of Science and Technology (IUST) to study civil engineering. He was a committed activist during the reign of the last shah, printing leaflets at home denouncing the monarch. At one point, the whole family went into hiding to avoid arrest by the Savak, the shah’s secret police.

In 1979, the year of the shah’s overthrow, he was the university’s head representative to the student gatherings that occasionally met Ayatollah Khomeini, the country’s new ruler, and he became a founder member of the Office for Strengthening Unity, the student organisation linked to the seizure of the US embassy.

On receiving his doctorate in traffic management and engineering in 1987, he became a civil engineer and eventually a professor at IUST. However, he had also joined the Revolutionary Guards and saw action during the Iran-Iraq war. Then his remarkable ascent began. After the war, he served as vice-governor and governor of Maku and Khoy and then governor of the Ardabil province from 1993 to 1997.

Yet he was virtually unknown when he was elected mayor of Tehran in 2003 in a 12% turnout. He reversed many reforms and put more emphasis on religion while courting popularity by distributing soup to the poor.

During the presidential election campaign in June, he contrasted his spartan image with the lavish lifestyle of Rafsanjani, but for lack of funds he could not match the latter’s campaigning.

He was not so thrifty with words. “Apart from Fidel Castro, I have never seen a leader wear out journalists like Ahmadinejad,” recalls a foreign correspondent who witnessed one of his press conferences. “There were hundreds of journalists, all with questions. He answered every one at length — for four hours.”

As president, Ahmadinejad is subordinate to Ayatollah Khameini, the country’s supreme ruler, who controls the armed forces and the nuclear programme, although it is not clear how firm a grip he has on the man he adopted as a counterweight to reformers. Ahmadinejad faces strong opposition in parliament, where three of his nominees for oil minister were rejected.

In September, he told Newsweek magazine: “Our religion prohibits us from having nuclear weapons.” After his recent outbursts, nobody takes him at his word any longer.

We have been here before. History would have been different if Hitler had stuck to painting and Pol Pot to teaching. Once again, it’s three minutes to midnight.

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