Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born in Aradan, Iran, on October 28, 1956. He assumed the presidency of Iran in 2005 and was re-elected in 2009, though his second election sparked widespread protests by Iranians who considered the contest corrupt. Ahmadinejad's controversial positions on human rights, nuclear development and Israel alienated him from both the Western and the Islamic worlds. In June 2013, Hassan Rouhani was elected as Ahmadinejad's presidential successor.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born Mahmoud Saborjhian on October 28, 1956, in the village of Aradan, near Garmsar, in north-central Iran, 82 miles southeast of Tehran. Mahmoud was the fourth of seven children whose father was a blacksmith. In 1957, the family moved from Aradan to the Narmak district of Tehran in search of better economic conditions. During this time, his father, Ahmad, changed the family name from Saborjhian (which translates to "thread painter," the lowliest job in Iran's traditional carpet-weaving industry), to the more religious Ahmadinejad ("race of Muhammad" or "virtuous race").
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad grew up in an Iran dominated by Western influence. Three years before he was born, the U.S. CIA aided in a coup to install the pro-Western Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as head of state. Many Iranians, led by the country's Islamic clerics, resented the Western incursion into Iran's politics. Ahmadinejad held no interest in politics as a young boy. He went to primary and high school in Tehran, and excelled in his studies. He received high marks on the national university entrance exams, finishing 130th out of 400,000 students. He entered the Iran University of Science and Technology in 1975 and received his undergraduate degree in civil engineering in 1979.
It wasn't until he attended Iran University that Ahmadinejad became politically active. Though the Shah's regime repressed all political activism and descent, Ahmadinejad secretly produced and distributed an anti-Shah propaganda magazine called Jiq va Dad (Scream and Shout). He joined the Islamic Association of Students in the Science and Technology University, a faction of the Office for Strengthening Unity between Universities and Theological Seminaries. The latter organization allegedly planned the taking of hostages from the U.S. Embassy during the 1979 revolution against the Shah.
It is unclear whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad participated in the takeover of the embassy. Some of the former hostages have identified him as one of the student leaders involved in holding 52 embassy employees for 444 days between 1979 and 1981. Ahmadinejad denies this, as do several of his political opponents who were involved in the embassy take over.
When Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi military to invade Iran in 1980, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad volunteered to fight against the Iraqis in western Iran, the home of the Kurdish ethnic minority. Reports are mixed as to whether he became a member of the Revolutionary Guard in 1986. Some say he was, others say he wasn't, but it is believed he was a volunteer for a paramilitary volunteer militia called the Basij that operated in cooperation with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It is also believed that he participated in covert operations near the city of Kirkuk, and worked to not only the stop the Iraqi incursion, but to also suppress any political efforts by the Kurds to form their own state.
There remain many unanswered questions about Ahmadinejad's participation in covert assassinations in the Middle East and Europe. He is suspected of planning the killing of Iranian Kurdish leader Abdorrahman Qassemlou in Vienna in July 1989. While American intellegence agents found no evidence to support this allegation, the Austrian government continued investigating the charge well into 2006. It was also reported that Ahmadinejad planned the killing of Salman Rushdie, the controversial Anglo-Indian novelist who outraged Muslim leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini with his 1989 book The Satanic Verses. However, evidence is not conclusive on this theory either.
In 1986, Ahmadinejad began his master's program in engineering at Iran University of Science and Technology and in 1989 he joined the faculty. He married another university professor, and the couple had two sons and a daughter together. Ahmadinejad also held a number of government posts during this time. He was appointed governor of Maku and Khoy, cities in the West Azerbaijan province. In 1993, he served as an advisor for the ministry of culture and higher education.
In 1993, he was also appointed governor general of the newly established northwest province of Ardebil and served there for four years. He was removed in 1997 by the newly elected moderate president Mohammad Khatami in an effort to move the Iranian government away from its more conservative elements. Ahmadinejad received his doctorate in transportation engineering in 1997 and returned to his teaching position at the university.
In 2003, Ahmadinejad was appointed mayor of Tehran by the city council. He was little known outside of Iran at this time, but his charisma and political skills became quickly evident. As mayor, Ahmadinejad began repealing reforms put in effect by the moderates, and imposed new cultural restrictions favored by the mullahs—Iran's religious leadership—including the closing of Western fast-food restaurants and the covering of billboards with Western references. He advocated gender-segregated elevators in municipal buildings and turned many of the cultural centers into prayer halls during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. He also ordered all male city employees to have beards and wear long sleeves.
In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran for the Iranian presidency with the full support of conservative leaders. Populist in his approach, Ahmadinejad promised to address the poverty and social injustices in Iran, and to work to end corruption. He campaigned on the slogan, "We can do it," and was the only presidential candidate to speak out against improving relations with the United States. On June 24, 2005, Ahmadinejad faced off with his campaign rival, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's former president from 1989 to 1997. During this second election, Ahmadinejad played the role of a simple man who was one of the people, and portrayed Rafsanjani as a political hack who amassed a great fortune through corruption. Ahmadinejad won the election by a landslide, collecting 17 million of the 27 million votes cast.
Whether a masterful politico or an honest broker, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad developed a strong bond with Tehran's deeply religious working class. Ahmadinejad wanted to continue to live in his own house after being elected president, until security advisers forced him to move. He took out the expensive furniture and rugs in the presidential palace and replaced them with less expensive furnishings. He refused the VIP seat on the presidential plane and eventually replaced it with a cargo plane. He also spoke in blue-collar colloquialisms in his speeches and presentations. While Tehran's political elite ridiculed him for his mannerisms, the behavior played well with many Iranians, who saw their president as "one of them."
After his presidential win, Ahmadinejad became an imposing international figure. His hard-line stance on Iran's right to develop nuclear power heightened tensions with the U.S. In a September 2005 speech before the United Nations, Ahmadinejad professed his desire to pursue Iran's nuclear technology program, which he claimed was for peaceful purposes. At the same time, he condemned the United States for not only proliferating weapons of mass destruction, but also sowing a "climate of intimidation and injustice." He issued a veiled threat that "if some try to impose their will on the Iranian people...we will reconsider our entire approach to the nuclear issue."
From May 2006 to March 2007, the United Nations Security Council passed a series of resolutions requiring Iran to terminate its nuclear enrichment programs. It imposed sanctions on nuclear material and technology entering Iran, and also placed further restrictions on imports and exports with the exception of development and humanitarian aid. The Iranian leader remained defiant.
Ahmadinejad also fanned the flames of confrontation with his anti-Israeli rhetoric in public speeches. In addition to questioning the realities of the Holocaust, the Iranian leader showed his distaste toward Israel in October 2005, at the World Without Zionism Conference in Tehran. He spoke of an epic battle between Islam and the "World of Ignorance," a West led by Israel and the Zionist movement. Following the conference, he was also quoted as saying that Israel should be "wiped off the map." Ahmadinejad stated in a news conference on January 14, 2006, that the meaning of his statements had been exaggerated and misinterpreted. "There is no new policy, they created a lot of hue and misinterpreted. It is clear what we say, 'Let the Palestinians participate in free elections and they will say what they want.'"
Domestically, Ahmadinejad was able to play to his religiously conservative superiors while also appealing to those who elected him. During his first term, he banned Western music while at the same time lobbying to allow women to attend sporting events. He increased spending on social programs to fulfill a campaign pledge, while simultaneously ordering the confiscation of satellite dishes in mass raids.
He also encouraged the Basij to patrol the streets looking for improper dress among men and women. With the support of conservative clerics, Ahmadinejad instituted strict measures to control free speech and suppress opposition with methods ranging from harassment to arrest and imprisonment. By April 2007, Iranian police had stopped or detained more than 150,000 individuals on violations of new edicts imposed or supported by Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad was less successful in fulfilling many of his economic campaign promises. Despite possessing the world's 4th largest oil reserves, Ahmadinejad was unable to stop the squandering of Iran's oil profits. Iran had to import gasoline in 2007, as it did not possess the capabilities to refine enough crude oil to meet domestic demand. Although sources disagree, Iran's unemployment rate seemed to rise only slightly during Ahmadinejad's tenure in office. However, many claim that this was accomplished by implementing highly inflationary public programs and subsidies. Ahmadinejad was also unable to address the crushing increase in inflation, which was estimated to be between 20 and 30 percent.
The 2009 Presidential Election
All these issues—the sagging economy as well as the political crackdowns—came to a head during the June 2009 presidential elections. Iran's crippling inflation rate, high unemployment, and the question of how its oil revenue was being spent were at the top of Iranian voters' minds. Three candidates surfaced to challenge Ahmadinejad: Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a pro-reform candidate, Mohsen Rezaee, a conservative, and Mehdi Karroubi, a career politician and reformist cleric. On June 12, 2009, Iranian citizens turned out in record numbers with 85 percent of Iran's 46 million voters casting their ballots.
The next morning, the Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran's official news service, announced that with two-thirds of the votes counted, Ahmadinejad had won the election. Mir-Hossein Mousavi received 33 percent of the vote and the other two contenders received less than three percent combined. Even though many pre-election polls predicted Ahmadinejad would be the winner, most indicated it would be close. Very soon after the announced results, the European Union, Britain and several Western countries expressed concern over alleged irregularities during the voting. Many election analysts voiced doubts about the authenticity of the results. At the same time, many Islamic countries as well as Russia, China, India, and Brazil congratulated Ahmadinejad on his victory.
Mir-Hossein Mousavi was the most vocal of the challengers to contest the election results. He filed an official appeal to the Guardian Council, and urged his supporters to fight the decision in a peaceful manner. Protests broke out in the streets of Tehran on June 13 in favor of Mousavi, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced there would be an investigation. On June 16, the Guardian Council announced a partial vote recount. That didn't seem to pacify the protesters, who were fired up about not only the allegations of election fraud, but four years of growing frustration with the Ahmadinejad administration.
At first, the protests were very large and generally peaceful. But the government remained steadfast in its insistence of Ahmadinejad's victory. On June 15, a crowd of somewhere between 100,000 and 3 million protestors jammed the streets of Tehran to see opposition candidate Mousavi make his first post-election appearance. As the government increased its crackdown on civil disobedience, Ahmadinejad tried to reassure the Iranian media that the protesters were inconsequential, comparing the lively demonstrations to the exuberance of a soccer game.
But as the protests moved into their second week, cell phone and digital cameras recorded the unprecedented demonstrations and leaked them to the world. On June 20, 2009, citizen journalism captured the on-camera slaying of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young college graduate who went with a friend to paricipate in one of the protests. When she stepped out of her car, she was struck in the chest with a single bullet which pierced her heart, killing her. The images of Neda's death traveled to hundreds and then thousands of cell phones, and computers sent the story to millions of viewers. Her death became a symbol of Iranian government oppression.
Protests and government reaction continued to ebb and flow with unconfirmed reports of violence and defiance. On the inside, several clerics and high officials began to openly question the election results and demand a wider investigation. According to Iranian press reports, 105 of the 290 members of the Iranian Parliament attended the June 24th victory party for Ahmadinejad, suggesting a deep divide within the political elite over the election and its aftermath. On June 29, 2009, Iran's electoral board completed the partial recount and declared Ahmadinejad the winner. The protests, however, continued throughout June and into July 2009. By early August 2009, the election results remained in dispute, with both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad convinced they had won.
On August 3, 2009, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei formally endorsed Ahmadinejad as president. Iranian political figures, including former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani avoided the ceremony. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi also kept his distance from the event.
Ahmadinejad's reign came to an end after eight years in office. On June 15, 2013, Hassan Rouhani was named Ahmadinejad's presidential successor, slated to take office in early August 2013.
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