Iran General NewsIran’s new President has a past mired in controversy

Iran’s new President has a past mired in controversy

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Iran Focus: Tehran, Jun. 25 – “Ahmadinejad? Who’s he?”
This was the typical reaction of most Iranians a day after the first round of presidential elections in Iran, when they heard that the two candidates facing each other in the run-off were veteran politician Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the little-known, ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran Focus

Tehran, Jun. 25 – “Ahmadinejad? Who’s he?”

This was the typical reaction of most Iranians a day after the first round of presidential elections in Iran, when they heard that the two candidates facing each other in the run-off were veteran politician Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the little-known, ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last week’s surprise was all forgotten by the much bigger shock on Friday, when Ahmadinejad defeated the former President and iconic figure in the ruling theocracy in a landslide victory that consolidated power in the hands of the ruling Islamic clerics.

With spotlights now trained on the small, bearded figure in a trademark dilapidated grey suit, Ahmadinejad’s murky past is causing deep anxiety in Iran and growing concern abroad over the new President’s policies and orientation.

Born in the desert town of Garmsar, east of Tehran, in 1956, Ahmadinejad was the fourth child of a working class family with seven children. His father, who was a blacksmith, moved the family to Tehran when Ahmadinejad was barely a year old. He was brought up in the rough neighbourhoods of south Tehran, where a cocktail of poverty, frustration and xenophobia in the heydays of the Shah’s elitist regime provided fertile grounds for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

After finishing high school, Ahmadinejad went to Elm-o Sanaat University in 1975 to study engineering. Soon the whirlwind of Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept him from the classroom to the mosque and he joined a generation of firebrand Islamic fundamentalists dedicated to the cause of an Islamic world revolution.

Student activists in Elm-o Sanaat University at the time of the Iranian revolution were dominated by ultra-conservative Islamic fundamentalists. Ahmadinejad soon became one of their leaders and founded the Islamic Students Association in that university after the fall of the Shah’s regime.

In 1979, he became the representative of Elm-o Sanaat students in the Office for Strengthening of Unity Between Universities and Theological Seminaries, which later became known as the OSU. The OSU was set up by Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, who was at the time Khomeini’s top confidant and a key figure in the clerical leadership. Beheshti wanted the OSU to organise Islamist students to counter the rapidly rising influence of the opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq (MeK) among university students.

The OSU played a central role in the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Members of the OSU central council, who included Ahmadinejad as well as Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, Mohsen (Mahmoud) Mirdamadi, Mohsen Kadivar, Mohsen Aghajari, and Abbas Abdi, were regularly received by Khomeini himself.

According to other OSU officials, when the idea of storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran was raised in the OSU central committee by Mirdamadi and Abdi, Ahmadinejad suggested storming the Soviet embassy at the same time. A decade later, most OSU leaders re-grouped around Khatami but Ahmadinejad remained loyal to the ultra-conservatives.

During the crackdown on universities in 1980, which Khomeini called the “Islamic Cultural Revolution”, Ahmadinejad and the OSU played a critical role in purging dissident lecturers and students many of whom were arrested and later executed. Universities remained closed for three years and Ahmadinejad joined the Revolutionary Guards.

In the early 1980s, Ahmadinejad worked in the “Internal Security” department of the IRGC and earned notoriety as a ruthless interrogator and torturer. According to the state-run website Baztab, allies of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami have revealed that Ahmadinejad worked for some time as an executioner in the notorious Evin Prison, where thousands of political prisoners were executed in the bloody purges of the 1980s.

In 1986, Ahmadinejad became a senior officer in the Special Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards and was stationed in Ramazan Garrison near Kermanshah in western Iran. Ramazan Garrison was the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guards’ “extra-territorial operations”, a euphemism for terrorist attacks beyond Iran’s borders.

In Kermanshah, Ahmadinejad became involved in the clerical regime’s terrorist operations abroad and led many “extra-territorial operations of the IRGC”. With the formation of the elite Qods (Jerusalem) Force of the IRGC, Ahmadinejad became one of its senior commanders. He was the mastermind of a series of assassinations in the Middle East and Europe, including the assassination of Iranian Kurdish leader Abdorrahman Qassemlou, who was shot dead by senior officers of the Revolutionary Guards in a Vienna flat in July 1989. Ahmadinejad was a key planner of the attack, according to sources in the Revolutionary Guards.

Ahmadinejad served for four years as the governor of the towns of Maku and Khoy in northwestern Iran. In 1993, he was appointed by Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ali Larijani, a fellow officer of the Revolutionary Guards, as his cultural adviser. Months later, he was appointed as the governor of the newly-created Ardebil Province.

In 1997, the newly-installed Khatami administration removed Ahmadinejad from his post and he returned to Elm-o Sanaat University to teach, but his principal activity was to organize Ansar-e Hezbollah, a radical gang of violent Islamic vigilantes.

Since becoming mayor of Tehran in April 2003, Ahmadinejad has been using his position to build up a strong network of radical Islamic fundamentalists organised as “Abadgaran-e Iran-e Islami” (literally, Developers of an Islamic Iran). Working in close conjunction with the Revolutionary Guard’s, Abadgaran was able to win the municipal elections in 2003 and the parliamentary election in 2004. They owed their victories as much to low turnouts and general disillusionment with the “moderate” faction of the regime as to their well-oiled political and military machinery.

Abadgaran bills itself as a group of young neo-Islamic fundamentalists who want to revive the ideals and policies of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. It was one of several ultra-conservative groups that were setup on the orders of Ayatollah Khamenei in order to defeat outgoing President Mohammad Khatami’s faction after the parliamentary elections in February 2000.

Ahmadinejad’s record is typical of the men chosen by Khamenei’s entourage to put a new face on the clerical elite’s ultra-conservative identity. But beyond the shallow façade, few doubt that the Islamic Republic under its new President will move with greater speed and determination along the path of radical policies that include more human rights abuses, continuing sponsorship of terrorism, and the drive to obtain nuclear weapons.

Related story: Iran elections candidates: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – 14 June 2005

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