After his election as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran on June 24, 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (born 1956) emerged as one of the world's most controversial, and in some quarters most feared, political leaders.
With a hard-line attitude and a devout, almost mystical Islamic faith forged partly in Iran's earlier conflicts with Iraq and with the United States, Ahmadinejad defied Western demands that Iran halt the development of its nuclear energy program, which in the view of many Western leaders was intended to put Iran on the path toward acquisition of nuclear weapons. That possibility alarmed no one more than the leaders of Israel, whose legitimacy as a state Ahmadinejad repeatedly questioned. According to U.S. News & World Report as well as other news outlets, he even stated that "Israel must be wiped off the map." Ahmadinejad had critics within Iran as well, but he was a charismatic politician with a strong base of support at home, especially among Iranians who had shared his modest origins. Even in the West, Ahmadinejad became an instantly recognizable figure in his characteristic loafers and light-colored cotton jackets.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (mah-MOOD ah-mah-dihnee-ZHAHD) was born Mahmoud Saborjhian on October 28, 1956, the fourth son among seven children of a blacksmith in the town of Aradan, Iran, near the larger city of Garmsar. When he was one year old, the family moved to the Iranian capital of Tehran and took the more religious surname of Ahmadinejad. He grew up in a country under the sway of Western influence: three years before he was born, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had sponsored a coup that installed the pro-Western Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Iran's head of state. Many Iranians, led by the country's hierarchy of Islamic clerics, resented the Western incursion into Iranian culture and politics.
That resentment reached a peak during Ahmadinejad's college years. His chance to pursue higher education was a direct result of his scholastic accomplishments; in 1975 he finished 130th among students in the entire country who took university entrance exams that year, and he was admitted as a civil engineering student at Tehran's University of Science and Technology. Ahmadinejad would eventually go on for master's and doctoral degrees in engineering, but in the late 1970s political activities took first place in his life. Islamic activism was repressed by the Shah, but Ahmadinejad turned out anti-Shah leaflets on a hidden printing press, and he and some friends issued a protest magazine called Jiq va Dad (Scream and Shout). He joined a student group called the Office for Strengthening Unity Between Universities and Theological Seminaries.
This group of religious students was involved with the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in the fall of 1979 and the subsequent imprisonment of embassy staff as hostages. An Iranian official who was a friend of Ahmadinejad's at the time told Newsweek that Ahmadinejad participated in planning sessions but actually argued against the embassy takeover. The Global Security website, however, reported that Ahmadinejad had advocated a simultaneous attack on both the U.S. and Soviet Union embassies. After Ahmadinejad's election as president, some former U.S. hostages alleged that he had been among the actual hostage-takers. Ahmadinejad has denied the allegation, and U.S. intelligence agencies have generally supported his denials.
Whatever his actual involvement in the plot, the devoutly religious Ahmadinejad devoted his energies to supporting the government of the new Islamic Republic of Iran under the spiritual leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and he soon became active in the inner circles of the regime's military arm. After Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered an invasion of Iran in 1980, Ahmadinejad volunteered to fight the Iraqis in western Iran, home to many members of the Kurdish ethnic group. By 1986 he was a senior member of Iran's elite Special Brigade of Revolutionary Guards. He participated in covert operations near the city of Kirkuk and worked to counter not only the Iraqi incursion but also the political aspirations of the stateless Kurds. Ahmadinejad was placed in charge of two Iranian cities, Maku and Khoy, and he served as an advisor to the governor-general of Iran's Kurdistan province.
Later, during his political career, Ahmadinejad would often invoke the names of his many comrades-in-arms who had fallen on the battlefield. He was part of a generation that lived through both the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, a generation that would come to dominate Iranian life. In the late 1980s Ahmadinejad's life was outwardly uneventful, but he continued to maintain his ties to the country's revolutionary leadership. In 1986 he was admitted into a master's degree program in engineering at the University of Science and Technology. He married another university professor and had two sons and a daughter
In 1989 Ahmadinejad joined the civil engineering faculty at the University of Science and Technology. He continued his political and military activities, however. A member of Austria's parliament, citing unnamed Iranian sources, charged that Ahmadinejad participated, as a lookout, in the assassination of Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Vienna in 1989. Newsweek reported that U.S. intelligence agents had found no evidence of this, but Austrian authorities were investigating the charge as of 2006. In 1993 Ahmadinejad joined the Iranian government as advisor for cultural affairs to the minister of culture and higher education, and later that year he was named governor general of Ardabil province.
It has been reported that Ahmadinejad received a doctoral degree in transportation engineering in 1987, but his own website biography gives the date of that degree as 1997. The later date corresponds with a period during which Ahmadinejad's hard-line faction was out of power in Iran—he was removed from his governorship after the election of moderate reformer Mohammad Khatami as Iranian president that year. Ahmadinejad returned to his teaching job, wearing the black-and-white kaffiyeh scarf associated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as he walked around campus. He was out of political life until 2003, when he was named mayor of Tehran by the city's conservative-dominated municipal council.
Ahmadinejad was still little known nationally and internationally, but his charisma and political skills first became evident during his tenure as Tehran's mayor. He imposed new cultural restrictions favored by the mullahs, or Islamic religious leaders, who really held the reins of power in Iran, shutting down Western fast-food restaurants and ordering the covering of billboard advertisements featuring English soccer star David Beckham. But as significant as his actual policies was the bond Ahmadinejad formed with Tehran's deeply religious working class. At one point he donned a street sweeper's uniform to earn the support of city workers, and he shunned limousine transportation in favor of a 1977 Peugeot automobile he had owned for many years.
Ahmadinejad's own working class speech patterns were ridiculed by Tehran's political elite, but ordinary Iranians saw him as a rather spiritual figure untouched by the political corruption that was dragging down the country's economy despite its vast reserves of oil. The suave interview subject, who later became known to American audiences with his appearance on the 60 Minutes television program, made an impression on Iranians as well. His calm demeanor, Brown University professor William Beeman told Thomas Omestad of U.S. News & World Report , reflected "a Sufi-like detachment from desire. This plays fantastically in Iran."
In 2005 Ahmadinejad, still not a familiar name internationally, entered the race for president of Iran. Contrary to the predictions of observers, he snared one of two spots in the June runoff against the moderate, well-established, and personally wealthy Islamic cleric Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad employed displays of personal piety, visiting a shrine in the town of Jamarkan, where many Iranians believed that the Mahdi, a religious leader from early in the history of Islam's Shiite branch, would miraculously reappear. He combined this pious message with promises of new social programs, and on June 24 he won a convincing victory over Rafsanjani in the runoff, winning 17,046,441 votes to Rafsanjani's 9,841,346. Western governments, and even Shiite religious leaders in neighboring Iraq, had little idea of who he was.
They soon found out a great deal more. Ahmadinejad followed through on campaign pledges to increase social spending and, confounding predictions that he would impose Islamic dress codes on Iranian women, he actually liberalized regulations pertaining to women's attendance at sporting events. But what gained attention in the West was Ahmadinejad's confrontational foreign policy stance. Alarmed by a litany of anti-Israeli rhetoric in Ahmadinejad's public speeches, U.S. president George W. Bush demanded that Iran halt its civilian nuclear power program, which was widely viewed in the West as a possible prelude to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Through 2005 and 2006, Iran resisted United Nations attempts—supported even by Russia and China—to slow its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad steadfastly denied that the research had military aims, telling Weymouth that "our religion prohibits us from having nuclear arms."
As some in Israel and in the U.S. administration were reportedly considering a difficult campaign of direct military action against Iran, commentators disagreed over the nature of the threat Ahmedinejad posed. Many were unnerved by his combination of militancy and religious fervor. But Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek , believed that "as long as the [international anti-Iranian-nuclear] alliance is patient, united, and smart—and keeps the focus on Tehran's actions, not Washington's bellicosity—the odds favor America."
In 2006 Ahmadinejad took his case directly to America's leadership and to its people—the former in a rambling, 18-page letter sent to President Bush that attacked American foreign policy, and the latter in the new medium of the blog (or weblog). He established his own website and posted a "Message to the American People" that asked, "Is it not possible to put wealth and power in the service of peace, stability, prosperity, and the happiness of all peoples through a commitment to justice and respect for the rights of all nations, instead of aggression and war?" By late 2006, although the conflict over Iran's nuclear program was still very much alive, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had joined other top-level American leaders in urging that Iran be brought into negotiations over Iraq's future. Ahmadinejad's international reputation declined further in December of that year when Iran hosted a conference of scholars who questioned the historical veracity of the Holocaust during World War II. The long-term implications of Ahmadinejad's rising international influence remained unclear.
Newsmakers , Issue 1, Thomson Gale, 2007.
National Review , May 8, 2006.
New Statesman , December 5, 2005.
New Yorker , May 29, 2006.
Newsweek , July 4, 2005; September 26, 2005; February 13, 2006; September 11, 2006.
San Diego Union Tribune , January 19, 2007.
Time , July 4, 2005; April 3, 2006; September 25, 2006.
U.S. News & World Report , November 7, 2005; October 2, 2006.
"Biography of H.E. Dr. Ahmadi Nejad, Honourable President of Islamic Republic of Iran," Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran, http://www.president.ir/eng/ahmadinejad/bio (December 1, 2006).
"Message to the American People," Mahmoud Ahmedinejad Official Website, http://www.ahmadinejad.ir (December 1, 2006).