Kasra Naji. Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader. University of California Press, Berkeley 2008, 312 pages.
There is an urgent need for an unbiased and more detailed analysis of the origins of this son of a blacksmith from Aradan. And, a personality profile might in fact explain his incredible rise, from humble homes to the centers of power in Tehran. Fast, determined, scary to much of the rest of the world. Paralyzing, even nullifying, the already initiated little progress under former ‘reformist’ President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami.
Who is this man who has almost become a hero, even a kind of pop star, of the underdogs in Muslim societies; those (incredibly poor) who are sitting beneath the table of the rich? And those who are related in one or the other way to what has been called by George W. Bush as the axis of evil?
De-demonizing the Iranian President? Not really a purpose of the present book. The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader by Kasra Naji contains, from the very beginning, a lot of bitterness. The author was well-advised, or even more or less forced, leaving the country after having finished his book. Anyway, the book is a most welcome treatise with plenty of pieces of new information gathered mainly in interviews done between late 2005 and November 2007, when Naji had to leave Iran. It is also obvious that many interview partners had to be protected and stay anonymous.
I’ve got the impression that Naji, while not really glorifying the Shah, he rather demonizes the late Ayatollah Khomeini (and maybe he even deserves it), who was long residing in the holy city of Qom and forced to leave the country in 1963 .
The way how young Mahmoud had been socialized is not becoming very clear in the book. Maybe it is really not known. His role as a student of Tehran’s conservative Elm-o Sanat University and struggles (or battles) with left-wing activists in the tumultuous aftermath of the Islamic Revolution when Khomeini safeguarded his grip on power seems still to be blurred. His role in the American Embassy hostage crisis, alleged participation in executions in the notorious Evin prison; and even his contributions in the following Iraq-Iran war with the build-up of close contacts with the Pasdaran, remain rather enigmatic. Is this the typical carrier of a decided opportunist? Ahmadinejad’s first-time administrative task as governor general in the northwestern province of Ardabil, has it been quite a failure as the author wants us to believe?
Apparently, there was, especially after ‘reformist’ President Muhammad Khatami’s re-election in summer 2001, a political antagonism between him and Ahmadinejad who was, at that time since 1997, an Assistant Professor for transportation engineering and planning at his old Elm-o Sanat University in Tehran. But can it really be described as a power struggle eventually leading to Khatami’s defeat and much disappointment among Iran’s youth? Nobody in the West, I suppose, had ever heard about the young ‘right-wing’ activist teaching at one of Tehran’s Universities engineering before, say, May 3, 2003 when he was elected mayor of Tehran. Kaji draws, at least for me in too colorful shades, a picture of mayor Ahmadinejad as a driven activist, by religious fervor and political ambitions; busy with fulfilling promises of previous election campaigns but also very much involved in the rise of corruption in Tehran. Anyhow, it is interesting to read that the financial irregularities during his term accounted to that of the past several mayors of Tehran put together.
Why did the largely unknown man who was deliberately discouraged to continue in the election campaign of 2005 finally win the race? Naji writes, on page 63, without reference:
“Quietly, Ahmadinejad enjoyed the support of some of the most influencial backers in Iranian politics. These included important sections of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij, as well as the Guardian Council. He was also supported by the Imam Khomenei Education and Research Institute in Qom, which was led by his spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Most significantly of all, it later transpired that Ahmadinejad was the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Amazingly, the outsider and no-hoper was secretly the first choice of the ruling religious class, their institutions and militia.”
Given that this impression was true also before the first round of the election, why and when had he gained that much support? Naji vividly describes the quagmire consisting of top clerics (involving even Iran’s Supreme Leader), the Basij and Revolutionary Guard, who apparently conducted an urgently needed massive election fraud in order to get Ahmadinejad into the second round in 2005. He then won the run-off in a landslide with a more than 61% vote.
How did and does religion influences Ahmadinejad and his acts and speeches, his connection to certain Shi’a movements devoted to revering the 12th Imam and his fast return from occultation? His alleged spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, is introduced on page 46, but his ideological impact on Ahmadinejad’s politics, his apocalyptic visions, are rather obscured. Unfortunately, Naji entertains some notorious prejudices spread already about Amadinejad. Jamkaran, about 10 km east to the center of the Holy City of Qom, and its growing numbers of pilgrims are described in a rather denouncing way. Soon after his election, Ahmadinejad had supported the small complex of Jamkaran where the Mahdi allegedly had appeared in 984 CE with comparatively huge amounts of money. According to Naji, Ahmadinejad managed to “elevate the Missing Imam from an undifferentiated element in Shia Islam to a clear presence in the minds of many Iranian,” within only one year in office . But the simple fact that the western audience has never heard about, I would tell it central, beliefs in the Shi’a branch of Islam does not mean that it is a marginal aspect only.
Iran’s nuclear issue with the United Nations, the US, Israel, and the EU gathered new momentum under Ahmadinejad. It is amazing to read how the President is constantly using Iran’s nuclear pride for detracting the people’s attention from serious domestic problems. However, 16 national intelligence services had reported in November 2007 that, with reasonable confidence, an atomic bomb program had been abolished already under President Khatami. Naij’s book went to print before the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report , and may reflect, therefore, the overall impression of feverish activity to put Iran into the capabilities. Much of this was and is a mere show-off, of course . The cat-and-mouse game will go on, I am afraid. In its very recent report the IAEA said Iran was failing to co-operate with its investigators, raising the old concerns about Iran’s allegedly peaceful nuclear program.
While Naji makes sure that the widely known misinterpretation of Ahmadinejad’s tirades on the occasion of the infamous 25 October 2005 Tehran conference ‘A World without Zionism’ are put into the right perspective, one should not hesitate for a second assuming bad intentions of the entire Iranian leadership here. The former President Rafsanjani was even more frightening in his radical demands of erasing Israel from the map. It is important what is meant, the respective wording is secondary. Naji’s corrections seem to be a bit apologetic. He suggests that the outrageous proposals of Ahmadinejad as, for example, moving Israel to Europe or Alaska, and his abhorrent denial of the Jewish Holocaust (an insult of every single Jew in the world, including the small community of 25’000 Jews left in Iran) may be part of an intentional Third Revolution in the Islamic Republic . I rather got the impression of a completely inexperienced, indeed naïve, politicial amateur who was, sad to say, only overstrained with his tasks of responsibly leading a nation with such a great history of several thousand years. And, there were (and are there?) apparently no control mechanisms. I am sure that the Iranian establishment was more than irritated about Ahmadinejad’s solo attempts in 2005. And, for example, the two never answered letters to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and President George W. Bush in 2006 ? Doesn’t Iran’s President have any diplomatic advisors? And why did the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, keep silent? When Naji entertains Ahmadinejad’ network within the inner circle of Iran’s multilevel leadership, relations with ultra-conservative Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati (Chairman of the Guardian Council), or Mohammad Taqi Mezbah-Yazdi (his alleged spiritual mentor) remain blurred in a way .
It is Naji’s meritoriousness delivering at least some insights into the bizarre so-called Holocaust conference in Tehran, which took place in December 2006. The invited by the organizers assembly of frank racists, European Nazis, white supremacist Americans, ultra-orthodox anti-Zionist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims was rightly more or less ignored in western media. It is a shame for a grand nation like Iran to have come down to such disgrace. A shame that some of the Iranian leaders aligned with the offscourings of this kind.
There are a great number of traditional denominations in the book about left- and right wing politicians and attitudes which might confuse the reader. In the traditional meaning, ‘revolutionaries’’ fighting for the abolishment of the social order is considered extreme leftists. Revolutionaries are usually fundamentalist in a very dogmatic sense. Those who uphold the traditional authorities and liberties of the society, frequently with a determined nationalistic view, are considered right-wing. Thinking in left- and right-wing categories is about to vanish in the Western societies, in a widely perceived ‘global’ World, a pleonasm, of course . The inflationary use of these rather unclear denominations in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran (definitely a counter-revolution of the clergy) by Naji may in fact be questioned. Secular liberalism or Marxism vs. fundamentalist Islam or Islamism would have done better, but what the members of the very heterogeneous political and religious groups in Iran are really thinking is too complex, I suppose, to assign ‘traditional’ labels on them. Other examples for graphic and, for my taste, too imprecise assignments are ‘radical’, ‘radical reformist’, ‘hardliner’, ‘conservative’ and ‘neo-conservative’, even ‘ultra-conservative’, and ‘pragmatic’ whenever it comes to Rafsanjani.
The questions remains: Do we have to fear the man or rather the system appointing such a figure ? After having read the book, I am still not sure. Ahmadinejad is in no way portrayed here as a responsible politician dedicated to lead a great nation. His origins are, at least to me, still unclear. My immediate questions whether he was actively involved in the US Embassy hostage crisis and, maybe more important, in executions during the immediate turbulent events of the Revolution remain largely unanswered.
His acts before and after his election are widely perceived as irrational. He is a populist and political activist, a man deeply mired in his fundamental religious faiths which are not so much different from those of the rest of the religious people in Iran. Having learned his lesson that it was frank populism which has swept him to the levers of power in Iran has resulted in his daring and unacceptable attitude of a reckless and irresponsible zealot and baiter. Today’s news about the new IAEA report may be a portent for Iran’s near future.
 When reading the few paragraphs in the first chapter about the youth of Iran’s leader under the Shah regime, I remember the strong opposition, even detestation, of left-wing intellectuals in the West regarding Reza Pahlevi, who was sitting on the Peacock Throne (which I have seen very recently in Tehran’s walkable bank-safe, the mind-boggling Royal Jewelry Museum). I remember the day of June 1, 1967, when Benno Ohnesorg, a German student, had been shot dead by a policeman during a demonstration in Berlin against the Shah’s visit to Germany. SAVAK, Iran’s intelligence and security organization (definitely a terrorist organization by today’s standards) was frankly operating in Germany, more or less tolerated by Chancellor Kiesinger’s grand coalition government.
 I earnestly doubt. Again (after Saddam Hussein’ was toppled in 2003), hundreds of thousands if not millions of pilgrims have participated very recently in the Sha’abaniya festival in Kerbala, southern Iraq, commemorating the birthday of the 12th Imam on the 15th of Sha’aban. They were predominantly Iraqis, I suppose, completely unrelated to the Iranian President’s fervor. Most of my Shi’a colleagues in Kuwait were well aware of the 12th Imam and earnestly observed holidays in relation to the Mahdi. Some of them even claimed keeping a closer spiritual contact with him, something that also Ahmadinejad had mentioned. A kind of mild irrationality is, of course, a characteristic of any religiosity, cf. the current visit of Pope Benedict in Lourdes where legend has it that the Virgin Mary had appeared to a 14-year-old girl in 1858.
I had visited Jamkaran in 2006. I didn’t find anything special there, apart from being different than the probably dozens of holy sites of commemoration of Iran’s ‘National Saint’ Imam Reza and his relatives.
 National Intelligence Estimate. Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. November 2007. Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton even called the NIE “a quasi-coup of the intelligence services” … “intended to have political and policy effect.”
 But what are ordinary people thinking? I went, by taxi, to Abyaneh and Natanz in November 2005, a couple of months after Ahmadinejad’s election, when the taxi driver showed my, from the highway, “our atomic bomb project” with considerable pride.
 I still hold that it was bad style not to respond, in a sober diplomatic way, to Ahmadinejad’s initiative when he wrote his letters to Merkel and Bush. Apart from naïve attempts to convert the American President to Islam, there might have been issues worth for resuming an overdue dialogue. Naji stresses that Bush, found it in public ‘interesting’ and refrained of talking negatively about the letter and its contents. Merkel rightly betokened views on Israel and Germany as completely unacceptable.
 When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently praised Ahmadinejad and predicted that he might retain office for a second term, many considered this not really an accolade but an admonition of taking his present tasks as Iran’s President very seriously.
 In fact, right- and left-wing denominations mainly abolish because the world is becoming flat. See Thomas L. Friedman. The World Is Flat. A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century 3.0. Picador Macmillan, New York 2007.