Born to a blacksmith, educated as a revolutionary, trained as a killer and derided by rivals as a mystical fanatic, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is easily cast as the personification of everything there is to fear about a nuclear Iran. But he may be worse than that--not because of how he looks to the outside world, but because of what he represents inside his country. Ahmadinejad plays to a nostalgia for war among parts of Iran's leadership, and even some of its young people: a longing for confrontation, a belief that a quarter century ago, when revolutionary Iran was ready to challenge the world, send countless youths to martyrdom in the fight against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, endure missile attacks on its cities, suffer poison-gas attacks against its troops--in those days the regime of the ayatollahs was purer, more noble, more popular and ultimately more secure.
Since he took office in August, Ahmadinejad has shown himself an expert at provoking outrage, calling for the destruction of Israel, denying the Holocaust, berating "false superpowers." Although he continues to swear that Iran's nuclear research is peaceful, much of the world's lack of faith in Iran's promises was clear last week when even Russia and China agreed to send its case before the Security Council. Iran's response: threats to cease voluntary cooperation with nuclear investigators from the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency.
How dangerous is the crisis that Ahmadinejad has helped to spawn? Unimpeded by inspections and vowing to launch commercial uranium enrichment, Iran could move ahead quickly with a program to build a bomb--if that is indeed what it wants to do. Iran can produce enriched uranium "by the ton," its ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, told NEWSWEEK shortly after Saturday's vote, even as he insisted Iran will not produce a bomb.
U.S. intelligence sources estimate that a workable Iranian weapon is four to 10 years away. Israeli intelligence suggests a year may be a closer bet, and the Israelis see Iranian nukes as an existential threat to be stopped at all costs. Not since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was alive in the 1980s has Iran provoked so many regional and global tensions--and that's just what Ahmadinejad, his religious superiors and his key supporters in the Street seem to want. "This is the war generation," says Massoud Denhmaki, a documentary filmmaker and former member of the religious militia Ansar-e Hizbullah. "During the war [against Saddam Hussein's Iraq from 1980-1988], we learned how to walk on mines so others could walk on our backs. This is the same approach this generation has toward politics. We accomplished a lot with very little during the war. We'll manage the country the same way."
Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls these veterans "a very dangerous group." Sophisticated Iranians have treated them as "hicks," he says. But the survivors of the savage battles of 20 years ago "feel that they have a moral right to govern that country because they are the ones that saved it." After years of corruption and failed reforms, they mix a yearning for change with nostalgia for prouder times.
Even many young people are caught up in this wave. On the campus of Tehran's elite Imam Sadegh University, students who weren't born in 1979 talk about "the purity of the revolution and the war." "An Islamic renaissance is starting from here," says Reza Tawana, a third-year law student who fingers his worry beads and avoids looking women in the eye. "We are witnessing the start of a fundamentalist uprising in the region from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Hamas, Hizbullah in Lebanon and of course Mr. Ahmadinejad in our own country."
For the Bush administration, which is trying publicly to drive a wedge between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people, such attitudes present a dangerous challenge. This isn't just about nukes. Iran under pressure can use its extensive contacts in Iraq among dissidents and insurgents--and within the Shiite-dominated government--to further undermine the American position there. In today's tight market for oil, any threat to Iran's exports of crude will likely send prices toward $100 a barrel. Last week, even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waged a diplomatic battle to get the regime dragged before the Security Council, President George W. Bush tried reaching out to the Iranian masses "held hostage" by a small clerical elite. "We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom," said Bush. "And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran."
Yet Ahmadinejad and his supporters, even if they are a minority, are committed activists in what has proved a largely passive society. When conservative mullahs under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned most reformist candidates in 2005, the silenced majority stayed home. Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militias that served as suicidal cannon fodder 20 years ago dominated the balloting and put Ahmadinejad in office. Worse still for U.S. policy, Ahmadinejad has since managed to turn the country's nuclear-research program into a nationalist issue with support far beyond his core backers.
Who is this man who could inspire such hatred, fear and adulation? Going into last year's elections, he looked like he'd be just another also-ran, and drew little attention outside the country. As soon as Ahmadinejad won, however, allegations surfaced in the United States that he'd been one of the hostage takers who seized the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979. That charge turned out to be false. But another investigation is underway in Austria and France to determine if Ahmadinejad was part of a hit team that murdered an Iranian Kurdish leader in Vienna in 1989. U.S. intelligence analysts doubt it, but say the evidence thus far is inconclusive.
What is firmly known about Ahmadinejad is frightening enough, at least to the West. He is less a leader than a symbol, combining ferocious pride, militant piety, an expansive view of Iran and a narrow vision of the world that are all products of the Islamic revolution.
Ahmadinejad's family came out of the hot, dusty town of Garmsar on the edge of Iran's greatest desert. Soon after he was born in 1956, they moved to a working-class district of Tehran. There, growing up, Ahmadinejad had a reputation as the smartest kid in his class, and was increasingly devout. He played a lot of soccer, according to his longtime friend Nasser Hadian-Jazy; he didn't chase girls. (He's --now married with three children.) In the late 1970s, Ahmadinejad fell in with the student protest movements against the shah. Islamic radicals and leftists were vying for power at the universities and in the streets. Ahmadinejad and some of his friends published a magazine called Jiq va Dad (Scream and Shout), to sell in front of Tehran University. Often, they argued with Marxists. "Sometimes things would get physical, would come down to fists and kicks," remembers Mohammad Ali Seyednejad, an employee at the Ministry of Education who knew Ahmadinejad in the old days.
After the shah fled Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in 1979, young activists held a meeting to plot the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, which they called the "den of spies." Seyednejad says he and Ahmadinejad were there when plans were being made, but the man who is now the president of Iran actually spoke against the scheme. Three former student activists involved with the embassy siege--still seen in Iran as a great victory for the revolution--also say Ahmadinejad played no role in the hostage taking. (U.S. intelligence officials agree.) In fact, what is striking when you look back at Ahmadinejad's reputation in those years is how unimpressive he seemed. He was a follower, not a leader, "very polite and ordinary," says Seyednejad.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 to try to bring down the mullahs' regime, Ahmadinejad headed to the largely Kurdish areas of western Iran, not far from the Iraq border. He and the other representatives of the revolution who went there were completely raw. "The country was in the hands of students," recalls Hamid Reza Jaleipour, now a professor of sociology at Tehran University, who was appointed governor of Kurdistan province at the age of 20. "I didn't even have a beard," he says. Jaleipour helped to get Ahmadinejad a position as deputy governor.
Saddam's troops were a constant threat. So was an uprising by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran. The city of Mahabad was especially risky, Jaleipour remembers. "I used to sleep with a grenade under my pillow in case [the Kurds] attacked," he says. But, as Jaleipour recalls, Ahmadinejad rarely traveled there.
According to his official biography, Ahmadinejad joined the Special Forces of the Revolutionary Guards in 1986. He reportedly took part in cross-border commando raids near the city of Kirkuk in mostly Kurdish northern Iraq. But the official history of Ahmadinejad's activities later in the decade is largely blank, particularly after the war came to an end in 1988.
At the time, a special unit of the Revolutionary Guards was carrying out a covert campaign in Europe to eliminate opponents of the regime. Whether Ahmadinejad was part of that group is not known. But Austrian authorities have reopened an investigation into the July 1989 murder in Vienna of Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou and two of his associates. The investigations have focused on allegations from an unnamed Iranian source that Ahmadinejad served as a lookout for two assassins who carried out the attack.
Ahmadinejad has dismissed the reports as baseless. A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was discussing --intelligence, tells NEWSWEEK that American agencies looked at the allegations last summer, when the charges were first raised by Austrian parliamentarian Peter Pilz. They concluded that Ahmadinejad was not involved. But the U.S. agencies cannot be 100 percent sure of this, says the same source: back in 1989, U.S. intelligence did not see Ahmadinejad as a man of much importance, so there is little information about his whereabouts or activities.
Whatever role Ahmadinejad played in the Islamic revolution's struggle for survival, he can, and often does, recite the names of dozens of friends killed in battle. Throughout his career he has laced his speeches with references to dead fighters, exploiting Shiite traditions of martyrdom. But by the mid-1990s, after serving four years as governor of Ardabil province in northwest Iran, his image as a grizzled veteran was out of sync with the times. Iranians wanted more freedoms, better jobs, a more open civic society. In 1997, in a surprise landslide, they elected reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami to the presidency.
Ahmadinejad soon lost his government post. He returned to university life, but didn't fit in there, either, cutting an odd figure on campus with the black-and-white checked kaffiyeh of the Palestinians draped around his shoulders. And increasingly, Ahmadinejad identified himself with religious mysticism. His was the zeal that had overthrown the shah, his the religion that had sent hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths clinging to keys that would unlock the gates of Paradise. The reformers around Khatami might preach the need for greater freedoms and "a civic society." Ahmadinejad held to the faith-based roots of the revolution.
He cultivated an image of piety, humility and obedience to the Supreme Leader. By 2003, Khamenei and his loyalists had largely succeeded in their efforts to undermine and discredit the reformists, and Ahmadinejad was brought back to public life as the mayor of Tehran. Low-level government employees still talk about the way he would put on a street sweeper's uniform to show solidarity with municipal workers, or get out of his car to unclog a drainage ditch.
When Ahmadinejad won the presidency last year in a runoff against former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani--widely known as The Shark--many voters believed they were casting their ballots for a righteous fighter against corruption. But just how righteous has taken some by surprise. Last November, a video began circulating on the Internet and CD-ROMs that showed Ahmadinejad rapturously talking with an ayatollah about his September speech at the United Nations. It was as if he were surrounded by an aura, the president said. "I felt that all of a sudden the atmosphere changed there, and for 27, 28 minutes all the leaders did not blink... They were astonished as if a hand held them there and made them sit. It had opened their eyes and ears for the message of the Islamic republic."
Even some religious leaders were taken aback. "For a president, for a leader, even for a mayor, this kind of talk is ridiculous," says Ayatollah Hussein Moussavi Tabrizi, a senior cleric in the holy city of Qom. "These kinds of things lead us far away from reality." Tabrizi says he thinks Ahmadinejad has learned a lesson and will be more discreet about his mystical experiences in the future. But Ahmadinejad's spirituality is not simply a matter of expediency. The religious ideology of the Islamic republic is tied to the belief that the Supreme Leader--first Ayatollah Khomeini, and since 1989 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei--is a temporary guide for the masses until the return of the Imam Mahdi, who vanished more than a thousand years ago. Ahmadinejad has linked himself to a movement that believes the way must be prepared for the return of the Mahdi.
Historically, the position of president in the Islamic republic has never been a strong one. The Supreme Leader takes the big decisions, especially on war and peace. "I don't think Mr. Ahmadinejad would even drink a glass of water without the Supreme Leader's permission," suggests a Khamenei adviser who declined to be quoted by name. So it's unlikely that Ahmadinejad will ever have his finger on the nuclear trigger. Yet his power as a populist shouldn't be underestimated. Ahmadinejad's government is distributing rations of oil, rice and sugar to the poor, and has blocked efforts to raise the highly subsidized price of gasoline. He recently boosted the salaries of public employees and increased the stipends that up to a million families receive from the Imam Khomeini's Charity Foundation. "God bless Mr. Ahmadinejad," says Youssef Tarighat, who depends on that monthly check. "He is the only one who has really helped us."
Such Iranians are quick to rally round the country's right to develop a nuclear program for peaceful uses, and they rally round Ahmadinejad when he proclaims it. They don't buy the notion that they can't be trusted with nuclear technology while other countries like the United States, Israel and neighboring Pakistan supposedly can be trusted with atomic bombs.
So for now, even with its diplomatic victory in Vienna, the Bush administration is inclined to move slowly. Under a compromise worked out with China and Russia, the Security Council will take no action until after IAEA Secretary- General Mohamed ElBaradei delivers his assessment of Iran's cooperation, or lack of it, on March 6. There is no talk at this point of imposing sanctions, though U.S. officials spoke last week of imposing "a series of graduated steps" designed to increase if Iran remains defiant after the March deadline. Speculation about direct attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities is squashed every time it comes up (except in Israel; sidebar). "There isn't a military option," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declared late last month. "There certainly isn't one on the table, let's be clear about that. And no one is talking about it. I have never had a discussion with any senior American, from the very top downwards, except to say the military option is not on the table."
In the end, the Bush strategy of trying to reach out to the Iranian people may be its best--even its only real--option in dealing with Iran. To do that, though, Washington will have to understand that Iranians are not just hostages of a clerical elite, they are the products of a particular history of war and sacrifice, pride and pain, that they cannot, and will not, forget.