The Iran Threat
President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis
By Alireza Jafarzadeh
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2007 Alireza Jafarzadeh
All rights reserved.
CHILD OF THE "REVOLUTION"
I am a child of the revolution ... and if there is a danger for this revolution and our nation then I am ready for it.
—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, May 2005
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's activities in the first decade of the revolution took him to several fronts of battle. The military post that sources say he assumed while still an undergraduate student in Tehran, something not mentioned in his official biography and revealed for the first time in the following chapter, most likely groomed him to become a religious zealot not only in ideology but in action. As a young militant Islamic fundamentalist and Khomeini insider, Ahmadinejad was the quintessential child of Khomeini's hijacked revolution, operating wherever the regime needed him to go and carrying out six distinct types of operations from 1979 to 1989. Sources say his military career and radical Islamic calling began at the university, which he entered as a serious and highly religious student in 1975. His personal story begins in a small corner of the desert.
Soon after his fourth child was born, Ahmad Saborjhian decided to move his family from Aradan, a village at the edge of the salt desert of north-central Iran. After running two businesses, a grocery store and later a barbershop, Mr. Saborjhian wanted to find better opportunities than the sheep- and cattle-farming villages of Semnan Province could provide. But before moving to the capital city, he decided to increase his chances of success by changing his family name. Saborjhian, derived from the Farsi word sabor (thread painter), denotes one of the most humble jobs in the province's traditional carpet industry. To leave that regional trace behind and make a fresh start, Ahmad expanded upon his first name, which means "virtuous" and is another name used for the Prophet, Muhammad. He added nejad (race) to form Ahmadinejad, "virtuous race" or "Muhammad's race." Name changing was common among many people who moved from the villages to the cities, and Ahmad's choice reflected his intensely religious outlook.
Ahmad had already named his new son with another variant of the Prophet's name. Mahmoud, born on October 28, 1956, was six months old when the family moved to the Narmak district in northeastern Tehran. From his youngest years, Mahmoud lived up to his heavily Islamic names, immersing himself in the Koran from a very early age and trying to get into religion classes as early as age 10. "They threw him out because he was too young," said one of his cousins, "but he would insist, saying, no, no, I know how to read the Quran." The Ahmadinejad family eventually had seven children, each growing up in a devout household where their mother, whom friends and relatives called Seiyed Khanom, "Madam Descendent of the Prophet," maintained a strict code. When she hosted religious gatherings at the house, for example, she hung a curtain to separate the men and the women, and she did not sit next to a man unless he was a close relative. Like other very traditional Muslim women, Mrs. Ahmadinejad wore the full-length black chador that covered everything but her eyes.
Ahmad Ahmadinejad did well for himself in Tehran, finding a new trade in the ironworks industry. He owned the house in the upper-middle-class Narmak district, in a neighborhood called Nezam-Abad, and he sent Mahmoud to an expensive private high school, called Daneshmand, in another part of the district. An acquaintance of mine who attended this high school with Ahmadinejad recalled that there were several public schools much closer to the Ahmadinejads' home, but the family had the means to send Mahmoud to one of the most prestigious schools in Narmak. The tuition at Daneshmand cost nearly 35 times as much as the tuition at any of the local schools.
Even though the family had means, Ahmadinejad's parents preferred to keep the furnishings of their home plain to the point of austerity. "The family was not poor, but they were living very simple lives," said one of Ahmadinejad's second cousins. Ahmadinejad retained these tastes for himself, prompting the cousin to say in 2005, "His life is not luxurious at all. There are no sofas in his house in Tehran, only cushions and rugs."
The family's humble style coincided with its conservative religious practices. Ahmadinejad's classmate observed that the Nezam-Abad neighborhood was home to many highly religious families and known throughout the city for the dramatic heights of its Shiite mourning ceremonies. On the religious mourning days, which memorialized the death and martyrdom of Imam Hossein (the third Shiite imam) with rituals that sometimes included self-flagellation and selfcutting, the largest gatherings and processions were conducted in south Tehran, the Bazaar area, and Nezam-Abad. "The youth, who on other days did not look or act like devout Muslims, would participate in the mourning and self-desecrating fundamentalist acts," he recalled. Not surprisingly, the environment was ripe for recruiting young men into radical Islamic groups. "The strong, traditional religious social structure of Nezam-Abad, along with the existence of several influential mosques and Hosseinyiehs (religious sermon houses), had rendered this area one of the special social bases of Hizbollah," he recalled.
Ahmadinejad's education included classes in English at private language institutes, which boosted his grades in English in high school. "Such extracurricular English classes were very expensive," said his classmate, "and only the upper-middle-class or wealthy families could afford them. Definitely, no 'son of a blacksmith' could afford attending such a program."
The "blacksmith" label became attached to Ahmadinejad's father during the 2005 Iranian presidential campaign, presumably based on someone's English translation of ahangar, which is more correctly translated as "ironworker." The difference is significant because Ahmadinejad's father earned a healthy income working in the metals trade, enough to buy a house that he later sold for the equivalent of 70,000 U.S. dollars, a virtual fortune in Iran. But amazingly, the "son of a blacksmith" title clings to Ahmadinejad to this day. To many, "blacksmith" conjures up the image of a leather-aproned worker in a one-man shop, and this concept fit well with the poverty-conscious "man of the people" persona that the regime crafted about Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad was among the top students at Daneshmand, usually ranking second or third in his class. The school offered three tracks of study: natural sciences, literary studies, and mathematical sciences, and Ahmadinejad took the mathematics track. According to a longtime friend of Ahmadinejad interviewed by Newsweek, he played a lot of soccer and "he didn't chase girls." Sports were his main social outlet—he also hiked in the nearby Alborz Mountains—but in school he did not go out of his way to be friendly. On the contrary, he "always acted as if he was above others," recalled my source. "He looked down at other students and derided and ridiculed them." Ahmadinejad told people that he did not have to study hard, but "the truth was very much the opposite"; he worked to portray himself as something he was not. When the students got together to compare answers after exams, for example, he "pretended that he couldn't care less about his grades." If he found out that he had given an incorrect answer, he would make a point of waving it off as though it did not matter. He also set himself apart with his wardrobe, never wearing the current styles that all the other teenagers preferred. "Ahmadinejad always put on a jacket or an overcoat," recalled his classmate. "He never had long hair. He actually looked much like he looks today, except he didn't have a beard in high school."
My acquaintance also stated that Ahmadinejad held a grade point average of "just above 17 out of a total of 20" when he graduated from Daneshmand in 1975, which was better than most. He also did well in the national university entrance exams that year, ranking 130th overall. This earned him entry into the civil engineering program at the University of Science and Technology, located in his home district of Narmak.
By the mid-1970s, student unrest over the shah's repressive regime had flowed into the universities. Iranians were terrified by the arrests and executions carried out by the shah's secret service, SAVAK, and would no longer tolerate the shah's lavish lifestyle and economic policies that drove more people into poverty. The student activists evolved into three basic camps: the Marxists; the secular Muslims and intellectuals who envisioned a secular democratic state—that is, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK); and the radical Islamic fundamentalists, many of whom were apolitical and were mostly involved in reading religious books and writings. The fundamentalists later supported Khomeini when he came into the picture in 1978 and 1979. The Marxists and the MEK were the dominant groups until Khomeini's network grabbed control of the mosques and took over the religious movement in the months preceding the fall of the shah. The Mujahedin-e Khalq's organizational capabilities were nearly annihilated by the work of SAVAK, and later by a bloody coup within the MEK, all of which left the Khomeini followers with little challenge when they usurped the leadership of the anti-shah movement in 1978.
In his first year at the university, Ahmadinejad fell in with the religious political movement and found his calling. Not only was he the personification of the ultraconservative, highly religious mentality that Khomeini would soon enlist for taking over the revolution; Ahmadinejad immediately rejected the intellectuals and their secular political ideals. The effects of this new calling were evident after his freshman year. "Ahmadinejad was from a fanatically religious family," said his classmate, "and it was obvious that during his first year at college he had socialized with politico-religious people and had become even more religious." His religious zeal soon put him at the center of Khomeini's student movement.
When the major student demonstrations against the shah began in the late 1970s, Khomeini was sitting in exile in Najaf, Iraq, closely following the riots and strikes. Khomeini realized that a leadership vacuum had been created: many of the leaders of the student organizations and opposition groups, including the Mujahedin-e Khalq, were killed by the shah or were in the shah's jails. But the mullahs, who had kept their network of clergy totally intact, were not targeted by the shah's network. Many were collaborating with the shah, so once Khomeini saw the opportunity, he consolidated his power with the clerics and usurped the leadership of the revolution from the opposition groups. Everything was timing. It was a unique historic opportunity; Khomeini happened to step in at the right place at the right time.
Ahmadinejad and his fellow Islamic radicals were fueled by Khomeini's vision of a government in which zealous, uniquely qualified Islamic leaders control the "simple-hearted" lower classes. This sense of superiority is rampant in Khomeini's set of published speeches called Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship/Rule of the Jurist), released in the decade preceding the revolution but little noticed at the time. In a section about recruiting the people to his revolutionary ideas, he gives instructions on inflaming the masses to a militant defense of Islam.
Khomeini stressed the role of religion in arousing these masses into a powerful force, explaining that "all segments of society are ready to struggle for the sake of freedom, independence, and the happiness of the nation, and their struggle needs religion. Give the people Islam, then, for Islam is the school of jihad, the religion of struggle ... so that they may overthrow the tyrannical regime imperialism has imposed on us and set up an Islamic government." In the future, Ahmadinejad's push to bring the regime back to its "pure" revolutionary roots and reject western "bullying" would echo these ideas. Khomeini's total fusion of religious radicalism and politics as a means to define Iranian independence would show up in Ahmadinejad's countless speeches about Iran's "right" to nuclear technology, his call to wipe Israel off the map, and his condemnation of the imperialist United States.
Another crucial aspect of Khomeini's ideology that was burned into the minds of his student followers was his all-or-nothing approach to Islamic rule. Khomeini claimed that anyone who rejected his ideas rejected the Islamic faith as a whole: "Any person who claims that the formation of an Islamic government is not necessary implicitly denies the necessity for the implementation of Islamic law, the universality and comprehensiveness of that law, and the eternal validity of the faith itself," he said. This was typical of the message that Iranians would hear after the revolution: If you do not accept Khomeini's version of Islam and Islamic rule—which were no more than a collection of dogmatic, rigid, feudalistic, medieval ideas contrary to the true teachings of Islam—then you are not a Muslim. As with all tyrannical dictators, there was no gray area with Khomeini.
Initially, Khomeini flatly denied any interest in getting involved in postrevolutionary Iranian politics. While in Paris, he had said in response to a question about his future that he would go to Qom and teach theology. Once in power, however, he installed himself as supreme leader. The person in this politico-religious position, according to Khomeini's writings in exile, would act as the safeguard who ensured that neither Islam nor the people would fall into decay: "Were God not to appoint an Imam [high-ranking Islamic scholar—he was clearly talking about himself] over men to maintain law and order, to serve the people faithfully as a vigilant trustee, religion would fall victim to obsolescence and decay." Without such a leader, "men would fall prey to corruption; the institutions, laws, customs, and ordinances of Islam would be transformed ... resulting in the corruption of all humanity."
By his senior year at the University of Science and Technology, Ahmadinejad had risen to the top of the militant Islamic student movement. By then, Khomeini had positioned himself as the indisputable driving force of the movement, and many students had adopted his firebrand ideology. After the fall of the shah, Ahmadinejad founded the Islamic Students Association at his university, and in July 1979 he was selected to be the representative of the university who would attend regular meetings with Khomeini. After a series of these student gatherings with the ayatollah, Ahmadinejad cofounded the Office for Consolidating Unity between Universities and Theological Seminaries (OCU).
This OCU, underwritten by the regime, was the brainchild of Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Beheshti, Khomeini's closest confidante. Beheshti needed to establish a student fighting force to combat the rapidly expanding membership of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which was one of Khomeini's gravest concerns. In the early days after the revolution, the radical Islamic fundamentalists had already established themselves as the strongest student movement, followed by the Marxists and the MEK. The MEK's organizational structure had been severely shattered under the shah, and the surviving leadership and key members of the organization were released from the shah's jails only three weeks before the revolution, when the people stormed the prisons and released the political prisoners. However, the MEK, which emerged with a still sizable social support but little organizational ability, soon staged its come-from-behind move in the universities as the pro-Khomeini students were riding high. Khomeini immediately began using his network to put down the non-Islamic groups, and the Marxists lost much of their ground. Other groups were divided and disarrayed. But despite this situation the MEK was rapidly on the rise because of the enormous popularity of the speeches of its leader, Massoud Rajavi. His message of democracy, human rights, intellectual diversity and freedom, and other progressive ideas chipped away at Khomeini's base among young Muslims. There were six major universities in Tehran that set the pace for the entire student movement in Iran both under the shah and in post-Khomeini Iran. These universities were Tehran University, Aryamehr (later changed to Sharif) University of Technology, Polytechnic (Amirkabir Industrial) University, Science and Technology University, Melli (Beheshti) University, and Tarbiat Moaalem University. The major universities in other parts of the country were in Shiraz (south), Tabriz (northwest), Mashhad (northeast), and Isfahan (central). Within months, the Mujahedin-e Khalq became the dominant force in all the universities throughout the country. As a result, Beheshti met the challenge head-on by forming the OCU and enlisting its leaders, including Ahmadinejad, to put down the MEK primarily.
Members of the OCU central council met regularly with Khomeini, but they also held their own planning sessions. It was during one of their own meetings that two of the members brought up the idea of storming the United States embassy in Tehran. According to former OCU members who reported on this event in 2005, Ahmadinejad was present at the meeting. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Iran Threat by Alireza Jafarzadeh. Copyright © 2007 Alireza Jafarzadeh. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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