Phase 5: President Ahmadinejad, 2005 - 2013

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (b. 1956) - his background

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Mahmoud Sabaghian was born to a poor, but very religious, working class family, in a rural area east of Tehran. His father, Ahmad, was a grocer cum barber, who also taught the Quran; his mother was a sayyida (descendant of the Prophet). When the family moved to Tehran, they changed their name to Ahmadi Nejad - meaning simply "Family of Ahmad". He trained in civil engineering, in which he became a lecturer at his old university and earned a doctorate in 1997. He served with the Revolutionary Guards in the war with Iraq, but it's unclear whether he was ever an official member. His membership of various conservative political organisations led him to several unelected middle-ranking positions of authority in western Iran, and eventually to appointment as mayor of Tehran in 2003.

Election to the presidency

Ahmadinejad's enthusiasm to roll back the reforms of previous mayors in Tehran attracted support from the arch conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and his faction, who had long cast themselves as Khatami's nemesis. His promise to undo the Khatami reforms appealed to the hard line clerics, as did his uncompromising criticism of the USA and Israel. He also appealed to the less privileged who appreciated his cheap off-the peg suits, and his rousing populist rhetoric. He was not the clear winner in the first vote, where turnout was low, but, In the run-off with Rafsanjani, now too clearly associated with the established order, he won 62% of the votes cast. His win was warmly welcomed by Ayatollah Khamenei.

In power: home

He talked of returning Iran to the earliest principles of the 1979 revolution. In the event, his administration descended into cronyism, corruption, wastefulness and basic incompetence on a grand scale. He had promised to give ordinary Iranians the benefits of the oil industry: but although income from oil broke records, so too did the size of his budget deficit. Iran was importing 40% of its petrol. Ahmadinejad subsidised the price to court popularity, but then had to ration it to reduce the drain on the economy of foreign imports and oil smuggling. Iran's lack of refining capacity was partly to blame, as more oil was produced than could be processed locally - meaning one of the world's largest oil producers was its second largest importer of fuel! The pretext was keeping faith with "Islamic revolutionary justice": the reality was, by bringing the Iranian economy to the verge of bankruptcy, the impoverishment of millions of Iranians, forced to rely on state handouts. In contrast many entrepreneurs benefited, and a significant class of newly-wealthy plutocrats owed their wealth to the austere man of the people.

Green Movement protest, Tehran 2009

Ahmadinejad, with the approval of Khamenei, revived the Basij volunteer paramilitary force which had led many thousands of young Iranians to "martyrdom" in the Iran/Iraq war of the 80s. In return for status and benefits, they were now mobilised to control the streets and suppress demonstrations - they proved particularly useful during the 2009 election, when supporters of the rival candidates Mir Husein Musavi (b 1942, a wartime Prime Minister) and Mahdi Karubi (b 1937, a former speaker of the Majlis) were intimated and beaten, tortured or even murdered. The fraudulent outcome of the election led to the emergence of the "Green Movement", supported predominantly by the young educated middle class, eager for reform and disenchanted with the revolution's aging theocracy. The Green Movement protested the result and demanded the removal of Ahmadinejad. Demonstrations and counter demonstrations produced the biggest unrest since 1979. It was brutally crushed, nevertheless, and condemned as sedition by the government. But despite this setback, the Green Movement under Musavi continued to attract support - it was renamed "Green Path of Hope", and tried to work legitimately, although it did not recognise the current government and was not recognised by it.

Meanwhile the Revolutionary Guards were increasing their power - their influence now extended beyond defense and security into finance and business.. The Guards took over major infrastructure projects in engineering, energy and telecoms, leaving only politics and religion to the Supreme Leader. In effect a military coup was quietly taking place.

Bad hijabOther domestic policies included: encouraging population growth (despite inflation and high unemployment), at the expense of women's rights; curtailing human rights - less freedom of expression, suppression of criticism from writers, artists and film-makers; banning of peaceful protest; a crackdown on "bad hijab" [left]; intolerance of homosexuality, which Ahmadinejad claimed did not exist in Iran; interference in universities with a crackdown on academic freedom, the sacking of senior academics, and attempts to restrict the numbers of female students.

Nuclear technology - not the president's responsibility - surged ahead during these years. Ahmadinejad was a strong supporter, insisting that development was entirely for peaceful purposes - a claim that was queried by world powers, who in 2009 drafted a deal under the auspices of the UN to recognise Iran's right to develop a nuclear reactor, but restricted the possibility of a secret weapons programme. Ahmadinejad was hesitant, but eventually gave it his support.

In power: foreign relations

Foreign policy was not part of the President's brief, but Ahmadinejad used his position to travel the world. However, the most significant of his visits were to underdeveloped nations in South America and Africa. He particularly favoured Venezuela, and was controversially seen hugging Hugo Chavez's widow at his funeral. Relations with the USA (the Bush and Obama administrations) got even worse. At the UN General Assembly in 2010 he accused the US government of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks. He vented his hostility frequently on the USA, as well as on the UK, other western nations, and - especially - Israel.

He was an enthusiastic holocaust denier, and may or may not have said "Israel must be wiped off the map", quoting a remark of Khomeini in 1979. His attitude to Palestine also caused problems - when he urged the Palestinians to abandon talks with Israel and focus on armed resistance.

The fall

Ahmadinejad's excesses increasingly began to worry the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, during his second term (2009 - 2013). The scale of government corruption, nepotism and cronyism was unprecedented. He managed to repeatedly alienate the conservatives who had brought him to power. He was refused permission to stand for re-election in 2013 - as even Khamenei had lost patience: he favoured a return to a more middle-of-the-road president, and a comparatively fair election brought Hasan Rouhani (b 1948) to the presidency. An attempt to stand for election in 2017 was blocked by the Guardian Council.