Understanding Iran’s Ahmedinejad
By David Pryce-Jones
|Ahmadinejad: outside world an unknown phenomenon|
Elected less than a year ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a president unlike any other. He is doing his utmost to alienate the entire West, mobilising as much military technology as possible, and now enriching uranium in quantities apparently enough for hundreds of nuclear warheads. “This is the result of the Iranian nation’s resistance,” he boasts, and the work of “young scientists,” adding that the nation does not get its strength from nuclear arsenals, but “relies on the sublime beliefs that lie within the Iranian and Islamic culture.” Far from deterring him, the prospect of war, and perhaps Armageddon, is an encouragement. Those who live in democracies have become unwilling or unable to fathom anyone gambling with peace in this way – it took years to realise that Hitler and Stalin meant what they said. A huge leap of the imagination is now required to take the measure of Ahmadinejad.
The son of a blacksmith, he grew up in the provinces, and owes his career exclusively to the Islamic Revolution and membership in the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary body responsible for the regime’s security, the equivalent of the KGB or the SS. Personally he seems honest, a rare quality in Iran where corruption rules, among the clerics especially. At any rate, the ayatollahs parachuted him into the presidency to do their bidding, rather as Boris Yeltsin once promoted the then unknown Vladimir Putin. The analogy is not quite exact, since in Iran power is in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the president has the subsidiary role of ensuring the governing doctrine that “any action that weakens the sacred Islamic Republic is not permissible.”
To someone of such limited background and experience, the outside world is an unknown quantity. Ahmadinejad’s religious beliefs are no doubt as sincere as they are narrow, and they prompt regular pronouncements in a messianic style: “The wave of the Islamic Revolution will soon reach the entire world.” Or again, “Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi.” In the middle of the 10th century, this imam went into hiding, supposedly in a well in Jamkaran, south of Teheran, but it is an article of Shi’ite faith that he will return and herald the End of Days. Ahmadinejad and his cabinet signed a petition to the hidden imam, proceeded to Jamkaran, and threw it down the well for his attention. Similarly unself-conscious, he claimed that while speaking at the United Nations “I became surrounded by a green light,” so that for 27 to 28 minutes all the attentive listeners did not blink – the chronological exactitude is a touch a thriller writer might envy. And he closed that speech by urging God to “hasten the emergence of Your last repository, the Promised One, that perfect and pure human being, the one who will fill the world with justice and peace.”
History has produced in Iran a volatile compound of self-regarding nationalism and religiosity, a superiority complex that switches easily into its opposite of inferiority and martyrdom. In the national memory, Cyrus, King of Kings, remains a symbol of ruined empire. The Arabs swept in to impose their culture and faith, but they were Sunni Muslims, and Persians maintained their ethnic and national particularity as Shi’ite Muslims.
Nobody projected the accompanying sense of impotence and humiliation more eloquently than Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, writing in the 19th century when Europeans were at their imperialist zenith. In spite of his name, Afghani was a Shi’ite from Persia, but he shaped a mindset for all Muslims that is still influential today. Muslims in his view were backward, but the blame for this lay with other people, and not themselves. Europeans had stolen a march on Islam unfairly. He wrote, “It is science that everywhere manifests its greatness and power. Ignorance had no alternative to prostrating itself humbly before science.” For him, science was not the expression of a civilisation, but something Muslims had only to copy as a means to recovering the supremacy that is theirs by right. The reigns of the two Pahlavi Shahs of Iran in the 20th century duly paid attention to science, but not to Islam. The Islamic Revolution now aims to reconcile the two elements. Ahmadinejad’s boast about the “young scientists” doing nuclear enrichment corresponds to the spirit of Afghani.
In another echo of Afghani, Ahmadinejad likes to lament that, “unfortunately, over the past 300 years the world of Islam has been in retreat.” But he goes on to emphasise that this is changing, and centuries of humiliation at the hands of Sunni Arabs and infidel Europeans are reversing into the proper honour and glory. The prospects are tantalising. To the north, Russia is now so reduced that it is begging to sell nuclear plants and know-how, even though one day an Iranian atomic bomb might land on its own head. To the west, Saddam Hussein is no more, and Iraq is in no position to wage another war for many years to come. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states have no genuine military capacity. The Shi’ites are certain in the end to dominate the government in Baghdad, and their power already reaches into Syria, and through Hezbollah into Lebanon.
The United States alone appears to cast a shadow over the Shi’ite future, and so in the rhetoric imposed by the need for honour and supremacy, it is depicted as “arrogant” and the “oppressor.” In strict defiance of reality, Ahmadinejad asserts, “Our enemies should know that they are unable to even slightly hurt our nation and they cannot create the tiniest obstacle on its glorious and progressive way.” A Revolutionary Guards commander spells it out: “America should accept Iran as a great regional power and they should know that sanctions and military threats are not going to benefit them.”
In that same rhetoric of honour, Ahmadinejad calls Israel “a disgraceful stain on the Islamic world” and “a rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by one storm.” In any case, Israel is doomed to be “wiped from the map” in “a war of destiny.” While promoting a holocaust of its own, Teheran is currently hosting a conference to deny that Hitler’s Holocaust ever took place. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that the fury against Israel and Jews has no profound resonance with the population. Historically again, Persians and Jews were natural allies against Arabs. In the days of the Shah, Iran and Israel had close commercial and military ties. Anti-Jewish stereotypes and images of “stain” and “rotten tree” are intended to induce the sense of shame needed to mobilise the faithful to redress it. An Iranian friend told me how on the day when Ahmadinejad promised to wipe Israel off the map, she was incessantly telephoned in Teheran by people saying that he had signed their death warrant, and some of them were in tears.
A nation whose way really is glorious and progressive has no need for a totalitarian security apparatus. The regime makes sure that nobody challenges it. The Interior Minister, Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi, is responsible for the summary execution of thousands of political prisoners. To give just two examples, Hojjat Zamani was executed on February 6 in Gohar Dasht Prison in the city of Karaj, near Teheran, and Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi is slated to be executed there in May. The charge against both of them was “enmity with God.” I receive by e-mail regular lists of wretched men and women judicially murdered all over the country. Unforgettable among them is Ateqeh Rajabi, a 16-year-old orphan who went to work as a waitress to feed her siblings. Her efforts were called “acts incompatible with chastity.” She was forbidden a lawyer, and her judge himself put the rope around her neck. A crackdown on universities is under way, involving purges of staff and students. In absolute control of the media, the regime uses sophisticated equipment to censor bloggers, arresting them by the score.
Western culture has no room in it for evidence of weakness disguised in this way by language as evidence of strength. In Western culture the literal meaning of words counts for more than the psychological vanities or evasions behind them. To us, lies may serve a purpose of glorification or mystification but they cannot be true. To us, expressions of hatred and the threat of extermination and war and the End of Days are indeed what they sound like, to be taken at face value and not as expediencies designed to avert shame and reclaim honour. Again I cannot prove it, but I am confident that Ahmadinejad has no conception that what he believes to be making him a serious person in his culture makes him a dangerous nut in ours. And a danger is what he most certainly is, to us and to himself.
David Pryce-Jones is a veteran British journalist and the author of numerous books, including The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. His latest book, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews, will be published by Encounter this Spring. © National Review (www.nationalreview.com). Reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.