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Fundamentals of Politics Challenge Iranian Leader

Ahmadinejad's hostility to Israel and his Islamic agitation bring criticism abroad and at home.

January 02, 2006|Nahid Siamdoust | Special to The Times

TEHRAN — On the surface, little seems to have changed in the Iranian capital since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August. The streets still bustle with traffic. Women's Islamic dress is no more conservative, though it is no longer drenched in the summer's hot color, pink. In cafes, boys and girls sip the latest coffee concoctions and listen to Niaz, an Iranian band, and even Pink Floyd.

But underneath the veneer of normality, Iranians are watching as their controversial president settles into office -- and their country hardens under his fundamentalist leadership.

In his first five months in power, Ahmadinejad has carved an image of himself as a religious extremist and political radical. To many in the most conservative circles, this is a welcome change. But in Tehran's usually hectic bazaar, merchants complain of stagnant business. Inside homes, families wonder whether they need to brace for stiffer economic sanctions or international isolation.

To both insiders and outsiders, the political face of Iran seems to have drastically changed. Gone is the well-groomed, rosy-cheeked reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who coined the phrase "dialogue of civilizations." Ahmadinejad, draped in a Palestinian kaffiyeh, the scarf that he has appropriated to signal his struggle against perceived injustice, has stirred international ire with virulent anti-Israel rhetoric. Meanwhile, his habit of immersing politics in sacred Islamic tradition has chafed critics within Iran.

"He is not qualified to be the president of Iran. His words so far leave no doubt to his inadequacy to the job," fretted a 38-year-old graphic designer who identified herself only as Shahnaz B., expressing a sentiment common among Iranians these days. "The U.S. and Israel will only take advantage of his stances to further their own agendas on Iran."

At home, Ahmadinejad is known for his populist ways. As mayor of Tehran, he shunned the large office accorded him in favor of a smaller side office and remained in his small apartment in a working-class neighborhood instead of taking the luxurious mayoral house on the capital's north side.

One of his popular programs involved the distribution of funds for young couples to get married. Driving around in his 1977 Peugeot, he maintained the image of a humble man -- the main selling point of his presidential campaign, in which he promised to redistribute oil wealth.

Upon his election, Ahmadinejad visited the shrine of his idol, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In choosing his ministers and governors, he has relied on officials with backgrounds in the Revolutionary Guard as well as the intelligence apparatus.

An ideological transition appears to be underway. The director of Tehran University, for example, was replaced by a cleric. Western music was banned on state television and radio.

Internationally, Ahmadinejad's reputation is quickly growing as a result of his vitriol. The Iranian president has called the Holocaust a myth and proposed that Israel be moved to Europe, the U.S. or Canada. On Sunday, he accused European nations of seeking to complete the genocide by establishing the "Jewish camp" of Israel in the midst of Muslim countries, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

"I'm happy to see the Western world ache," said Amir-Reza Vaezi-Ashtiani, a city councilman who worked with the president, "because that means the president is putting his finger on the right spot. They know the Holocaust is a scenario spun in their own hands."

The president's speeches, the councilman said, may earn the wrath of "the five Western countries that believe they are the world, but these words will garner much more support in other parts of the world. God is with Ahmadinejad."

Analysts have read varied intentions in the president's words. Western countries uniformly condemned the remarks, and Israel and the United States urged the three European nations negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program -- France, Germany and Britain -- to take his statements into consideration.

"We get a sense that he enjoys the attention he has been getting, but it certainly makes our work harder on the nuclear issue," said an Iran-based diplomat from one of the European countries. "We have fewer reasons to give Iran the benefit of the doubt that it is in fact pursuing a peaceful program, which is what it claims."

Moderate Tehran legislator Mahmoud Mohammadi said the president has many supporters in parliament "who feel that no one protects the rights of Palestinians, and the West unashamedly supports Israel and its terrors."

Mohammadi, the deputy head of the national security and foreign affairs committee, said Ahmadinejad's style distinguishes him because "he believes for the defense of justice, one must talk in simple and straight language and abstain from diplomatic lingo."

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