Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 June - 6 July 2005
Issue No. 749
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Justice versus freedom

A landslide victory in Iran's elections and the world holds its breath
Profile by Ibrahim Nawar

Click to view caption

The victory of the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's ninth presidential elections on the 25 June sent political shockwaves throughout the Middle East and beyond. Ahmadinejad, who defeated former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and received over 62 per cent of votes cast, won on a ticket stating clearly that he thought justice and freedom stood in contradiction, and he came down firmly on the side of justice.

His past clearly illustrates his involvement in serious regional issues, from Iraq to Lebanon to Palestine. He has expressed negative views towards the United States, the superpower that is also the super-regional power now occupying Iraq, to the west of Iran, and that is effectively in control of Afghanistan. And while it is too early to know exactly how Ahmadinejad will behave as president many have expressed concern over the potential impact of his vision on the Middle East.

Born to a working class family in 1956 in Garmsar, central Iran, Ahmadinejad was brought up in Tehran's rough southern district where poverty provided a fertile breeding ground for Muslim fundamentalism. In 1975 he began a university engineering course -- he holds a PhD in engineering -- and in 1979 established the Islamic Student Association in Elmo-Sanaat University, becoming the university representative in the Office for Strengthening Unity between Universities and the Theological Seminaries (OSU). It was the OSU that organised and led the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.

In 1980 he and the rest of the OSU leadership played a key role in the so- called Islamic Cultural Revolution during which many university lecturers and students were arrested and executed. Universities remained closed for three years.

In the same year Ahmadinejad joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) and went on to work for the Internal Security Department. He developed a reputation as a notorious interrogator and was believed to have worked as an executioner at Evin prison where thousands of political prisoners were tortured and executed in the 1980s.

In 1986 Ahmadinejad was promoted to lead the Special Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards in Kermanshah and was stationed at the Ramazan garrison, close to the Iran-Iraq border. Ramazan garrison was the headquarters of the IRG's extra-territorial operations, planning, organising and carrying out attacks beyond Iran borders.

While in Kermanshah Ahmadinejad was believed to have established the elite hit squad, the Quds Force, and is thought to be responsible for a number of political assassination operations in Europe and the Middle East. The Quds Force is now active in Iraq, using Al-Amara as its base. The Badr Corps -- an off-shoot of the Badr Brigade, formed of Iraqi soldiers and officers who fled to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and which Ahmadinejad took a leading role in forming -- and members of the Iranian Quds Force have been accused of carrying out dozens of assassinations in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Yet another Iraqi group, the Movement of Hizbullah, established to launch a guerrilla war against Saddam in the Ahwar area, is also thought to be his brainchild. The Hizbullah Movement is now under the leadership of Abdul-Karim Al-Mohamedawi, a member of the Transitional National Authority (TNA.) The Ramazan garrison also provided military training to members of the Lebanese Hizbullah and other Arab groups affiliated to Iran.

Between 1990 and 1993 Ahmadinejad served as the governor of several towns in Northern Iran after which Ali Larijani, minister of culture and guidance, appointed him as an advisor. It was a post he held for only a few months before being appointed governor of the newly-created Ardebil province.

In 1997 the Khatami government removed Ahmadinejad from his post and he returned to his old university Elmo- Sanaat to teach. During this period he began organising the gangs of violent Islamic vigilantes that came to be known as Ansar Hizbullah.

In April 2003 he was elected mayor of Tehran, a position he used to develop a network of young Islamic fundamentalists -- Abadgaran-e Iran-e Islami -- that worked closely with the IRG and Iran's secret services. The new radical group scored notable victories in the 2004 municipal elections in Tehran and the parliamentary election of the same year, aided and abetted by the IRG and Ali Khamenei. Abadgaran, which promotes a hardline conservative religious and political discourse, considers itself the real guardian of the legacy of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Iran's new president-elect is likely to bring with him to office many hardline policies that will impact variously on the domestic, regional and international levels. He has promised change and he will be expected to deliver. It is his vision of Islam that will shape Iranian foreign policy for the next four years, and Tehran's approach to issues such as Palestine/Israel, nuclear power and dialogue with the West are likely to change accordingly. His landslide victory was secured on a manifesto that focussed on domestic issues -- eradicating corruption, ensuring greater employment and raising the living standards of the poor. Should he fail to deliver in these key areas many expect he will attempt to deflect attention by drawing his supporters into issues beyond Iran's borders.

Ahmadinejad is very much the man of secret agencies -- of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and affiliated paramilitary groups such as the Basijs, the volunteer paramilitary organisation operating under the IRG that was instructed to vote for Ahmadinejad and persuade others to do so. Mohamed Artianfar, an advisor to Rafsanjani, claimed Basijs members were used as guards at polling stations where they were in a position to intimidate voters.

The mobilisation of the IRG and Basijs may signal the emergence of a politically oppressive regime that will rely heavily on paramilitary and religious propaganda as Iran moves from the oppression of the mullahs to a semi- military dictatorship. In order to continue on such a path Ahmadinejad will foreground religion and nationalism, though his most immediate task will be to fulfil the pledges made to those who voted him into office. He will have to display success in fighting corruption as well as impose measures aimed at securing greater social justice.

Few doubt Ahmadinejad's support was swelled by disappointment at the poor performance of reformers and the way in which corruption infected the state under their administration. For the young people who make up 70 per cent of the population job opportunities and an improved quality of life are the biggest concerns. For all the debate over freedom and democracy it was the economy and the social justice that mattered most to voters.

Ahmadinejad's campaign exploited widespread resentment at the growing gap between rich and poor. He played up his working-class roots and vowed to increase aid to the needy and to young families across Iran. His experience as mayor of Tehran was helpful in this respect, since Ahmadinejad was able to project himself as a populist public servant in touch with bread-and- butter issues such as unemployment and housing.

Although, the day after his victory, Ahmadinejad promised to pursue a moderate line it is difficult to imagine this product of the religious right, of the IRG and the vigilante Basijs militia, the volunteer force established by the former Ayatollah Khomeini to crush internal dissent, being able to resist the blandishments of the ultra- conservatives.

Universities, and the capital Tehran, are likely to become a battleground between conservatives and reformists on issues related to discipline. In Iraqi cities such as Baghdad and Basra students were beaten up, arrested and otherwise humiliated by ultra conservatives loyal to Iran for growing their hair or for wearing jeans. Many Iranians have expressed concern that the same scenes could be repeated in Tehran, and in the near future Iran could well witness its second exodus under the Islamic revolution as those with the means to do so leave the country.

Sweeping changes are expected within the administration as reformers are ejected and the conservative hold over sensitive ministries consolidated. Culture, education and the media are high on the conservative agenda. There will be greater restrictions on freedom of expression, greater politicisation of culture and education, and accompanying them a spread of the paratrooping mentality.

With American troops just across Iran's borders with both Iraq and Afghanistan Tehran has every reason to feel threatened. Iran's ultra- conservatives view the US as the foremost enemy of the Islamic Republic. And of all Iran's borders that with Iraq is most porous, with many crossing points unguarded or manned by pro- Iranian Iraqis. The border is open to smugglers of everything -- from hard currencies, drugs and weapons to people.

Ahmadinejad's victory will have far reaching consequences in Iraq. A great deal is at stake -- certainly for the Iranian opposition group the People's Mujahideen and for Iraqi military personnel and technocrats who helped in the war against Iran. Even the Shia political alliance is jeopardised by the ascendancy in Tehran of hardliners willing to accept nothing less than total loyalty from Baghdad. Iranian policy since the fall of Saddam has been to ensure that Iraq can never again be used against it as it was during the 1980-1988 war.

The day after the Iranian presidential elections several Iraqi newspapers carried advertisement denouncing the People's Mujahideen as a terrorist organisation. The Sadrists paid for the ad in which a picture of Mohamed Sadeq Al-Sadr, the father of Muqtada Al-Sadr, was prominent. The People's Mujahideen, it is now obvious, will have to look elsewhere for shelter.

The Badr Corps now control significant areas of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, especially those close to the Iranian border, including Assamawa and Al-Amara. The hardliners in control of the Badr Corps can create many problems for moderate Shia leaders, with elements of Badr and the Iranian Quds Force already accused of carrying out a campaign of assassination against Iraqi military officers who fought in the war against Iran.

Though now divided Shia paramilitary troops could coordinate their actions under pressure from the new Iranian leadership. Badr, Al-Mehdi and Movement of Hizbullah fighters could quickly derail moderate Shia policy in Iraq where moderate Shia leaders will have to pay a price for supporting Rafsanjani in the elections unless they make it crystal clear they are fully behind the new leadership in Tehran. Soon there is likely to be a new wave of political visits by Iraq's Shia leaders to Tehran offering their loyalty to the president-elect.

Iran will continue to use Iraq's porous borders to pursue its regional policy objectives. The smuggling of drugs to the Gulf region via Iraq is impacting on the societies of the Gulf states and will continue, alongside the smuggling of weapons and people.

Since the fall of Saddam southern Iraq has undergone a major demographic change. On entering an Iraqi police station in Basra you should not be surprised to hear Persian, rather than Arabic, being spoken. Iran is rumoured to be paying at least $20 million a month in the south for those on its payroll.

Recent arrests by Iraqi forces on the border with Iran lend credence to the rumours. On 10 April Iraqi forces arrested 30 armed Iranian agents. Six individuals, of whom five were Iranian and one Iraqi, were apprehended by the Iraqi National Guard at a checkpoint near Maqdadiya in Iraq's Diyala province. They were carrying light arms and RPG rockets intended for use in operations in Diyala. In a separate incident 25 mercenaries, who received orders from Iran's Fajr garrison, were detained by Iraqi security forces. Mercenaries who had deserted from the same network claimed that the arrested had been involved in the assassination of the former governor of Baghdad. Fajr, which is close to Ramazan garrison, has long been an operational base for the IRG and its elite Quds Force.

Tehran has more than 40,000 agents in Iraq on its payroll according to a 28 February report broadcast by Simaye Azadi, the Iranian opposition Persian- language satellite television channel close to the opposition National Council of Resistance.

On 14 February an agent from Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security was apprehended carrying dozens of fake passports in the Iraqi city of Al-Amara. The Iranian was accompanied by a Saudi national who was also in possession of counterfeit passports.

In Najaf, in August last year, Iraqi National Guards detained dozens of Iranian agents and unearthed caches of Iranian- made weapons. Now, with the integration of the Badr Corps within Iraq's own forces Tehran will be better able to cover its tracks in Iraq.

While Iraq's Shia Marjaaia may be able to maintain a balance between Iraqi and Iranian interests for the time being the aging Ali Al-Sistani is unlikely to be able to play that role much longer. And Iran understands that Marjaaia is not only a matter of religious leadership; it means, above all, money. If the Shia Marjaaia move from Qom to Najaf Iran's religious elite will lose a great deal of potential income. In Qom they will fight hard to stay in control.

Beyond Iraq Ahmadinejad's win will strengthen hardliners in Syria. For more than two years now Syrian and Iranian policies towards Iraq have been at odds. Since the fall of Saddam the Syrian approach towards Iraq has been to undermine the American occupation by supporting the insurgency. Iran played two cards, acting to destabilise US control of Iraq while simultaneously supporting the establishment of a new regime under Shia control. Syria and Iran may now come to agree on a new approach towards Iraq and the US.

Closer cooperation between Iran and Syria will be viewed as a destabilising factor in the region. In Saudi Arabia and Jordan concern has been expressed openly about such an eventuality, with politicians, including King Abdullah, warning of the rise of a Shia crescent stretching from Iran, through Iraq and into Syria and South Lebanon, which could destabilise the entire Middle East.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election begs many questions -- over Iran's policy towards Israel, the Arab Gulf States, nuclear power and the so-called Islamic world revolution. Only one thing is certain: Iran is a major regional power and any shifts in its policy orientations will reverberate far beyond its borders.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 749 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | Opinion | Reader's corner | Press review | Culture | Environment | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Cartoons | Profile | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map