Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: No qualms about ruffling feathers

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square on February 10, 2009.

He won’t wear a tie. Not even in formal sessions with his counterparts at the United Nations General Assembly.

In fact, if he ever stands out for his dressing, it is because he will be the odd man out. Simply put, he is not a sharp dresser. But the mention of his name triggers immediate attention. This is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran.

The narrow-eyed, straight-talking man calculates his every step, literally. And his slow, measured steps were evident on Wednesday evening as he inspected a guard mounted in his honour by the Kenya Air Force when he landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for a two-day visit to Kenya.

A devout Muslim, President Ahmadinejad was born in a village called Aradan, near Tehran. He is the fourth born in a family of seven. At 53, the father of three is a prayerful family man who speaks of Allah wherever he goes. In fact, he could be mistaken for an Imam when he makes keynote remarks in public.

But his passion for Islamic faith not withstanding, President Ahmadinejad is one man who will court controversy anywhere, any time. Last year in December he, in line with the Queen’s traditional broadcast, sent a message of goodwill to Christians on Christmas Day.

“In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful . . . Upon the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, son of Mary, the word of God, the messenger of mercy, I would like to congratulate the followers of Abrahamic faiths, especially the followers of Jesus Christ, and the people of Britain,” he said in a speech televised by BBC and ITV.

In his speech, the Iranian President said he believed that had He been alive today, Jesus Christ would be on the side of Iran, not the West.

“We believe Jesus Christ will return, together with one of the children of revered messenger of Islam and would lead the world to a rightful point,” he said.

On the world stage, he attracts hate and admiration with almost equal measure over his dealings with the United States of America, Israel and the United Nations (especially the Security Council). His government’s nuclear programme has got the West restless but the man has vowed to continue with what he says is safe technology.
Sounds diplomatic

The man is a contradiction of sorts. At one moment, he is a hardliner but sounds diplomatic in the next minute. He can hint at war and talk about dialogue in the same sentence.

In spite of his strong sentiments on how Iran must safeguard its nuclear programme, he is not short of humour. He has been seen laughing heartily in front of TV cameras. He is witty in employing this easy-going demeanour to endear audiences and the media to himself.

And perhaps witty would be an understatement in describing a man who is alleged to have been actively involved in the 1979 Islamic revolution against “Western imperialists”.

On November 4 of that year, Islamist students invaded and took control of the American embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian revolution that transformed Iran from a constitutional monarchy under Shah Mohammad Pahlavi to an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution.

At that time Mr Ahmadinejad was an engineering student at the Iran University of Science and Technology. He was a member of the Office of Strengthening Unity, the student body that planned the Tehran embassy hostage fiasco.

To this day, some of the 52 hostages at the embassy claim the president was among the captors, but he has denied the claims.

Since the Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah in 1979, the two countries have had no diplomatic ties. But early this year, as Iran marked 30 years since the revolution, President Ahmadinejad said he was ready for talks with US President Barack Obama based on “mutual respect.”

Mr Ahmadinejad has had a stint in journalism, having worked with Hamshahri newspaper in Tehran as its managing director. He lectured at Iran University of Science and Technology from where he was appointed governor general of Ardabil Province between 1993 and 1997. The City Council of Tehran appointed him Mayor of Tehran in 2003.

It is reported that were it not for Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, he would never have become Iran’s president. Ayatollah Khamenei noticed him when he was the Mayor of Tehran and helped him climb to the presidency in 2005. He became Iran’s first non-cleric president.

On assuming the presidency in 2005, he turned all the cultural centres into prayer halls, an indication of how deeply religious he is. He also cancelled concerts and secular programmes, bringing out the identity of a man who is passionately anti-West in mind and soul.

According to The New Yorker, whenever he visited New York, he would meet Iranians living there over breakfast. But President Ahmadinejad has his moments of joy at the dinner table and confesses loyalty to the Islamic faith. In October 2007, in the middle of Ramadhan, he hosted a nightly iftar meal, which breaks the fast each evening.

At the Hilton, New York, The New Yorker reports that hundreds of Iranians lined up for the dinner and as soon as President Ahmadinejad arrived, guests in the middle of their meals stood to recite the Koran.

Exclaiming “Congratulations on Ramadhan!” to a standing ovation, he remained true to character saying: “I’m truly thankful to God that I can spend this time in this auspicious month in the company of you Iranians in New York!”

Although it is not documented how frequently he visits the mosque for prayers, President Ahmadinejad is believed to be a staunch Muslim who has kept his father’s religious teachings. While he was growing up in the 1970s, an era when families embraced secular life, he refused to change.

President Ahmadinejad is one man former US President George W. Bush had little respect for while in office. Mr Bush is on record as having described Ahmadinejad’s administration as part of an “axis of evil”.

But even with all the controversy around him, he has had compelling one-on-one interviews with internationally renowned TV personalities like CNN’s Larry King. Appearing on Larry King Live on September 23, 2008, he said only President Bush, Senator John McCain and President Obama (then senator) could tell the world why they did not want to talk to him.

World affairs

Asked if he loved being in New York, he replied: “In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful, well, this is the headquarters of the United Nations and it is essential that we come here to meet with the heads of state and to promote the cooperation that is required for the management of world affairs today.”

At a public forum during his tour of Columbia University in September 2007, a member of the audience asked him what it would take for Iran to engage in talks with the US or the West.

As reported in the New York Times of September 24, 2007 he said: “If the US Government recognises the rights of the Iranian people, respects all nations and extends a hand of friendship to all Iranians, they will see that Iranians will be among their best friends.”

Not a lot is known about Iran’s First Lady, but she is said to be an engineer. Together, the couple has three children; two sons and a daughter. Two are already married and one is a university student.

President Ahmadinejad, who was born Mahmoud Saborjian, rose from humble beginnings to become Iran’s sixth president. His father, Ahmad Sabaghian, earned a living as a blacksmith. His father changed his name when the family relocated from the village to Tehran when Ahmadinejad was only one-year-old.

Though he grew up under difficult circumstances in a Tehran suburb, he excelled through the school system, topping his class in high school and going on to achieve the highest credentials at the university.

He pursued a degree in civil engineering at the Iran University of Science and Technology and went on to get a Ph.D in traffic and transportation engineering and planning. According to the New York Times, Ahmadinejad has always presented himself as a simple man who is considerate of the poor.

He has often criticised the wealthy in Iran, winning massive support from the voters. On one occasion, he said teachers had lived on small salaries and ought to have an increase in pay.

Revolutionary Guards

Mr Ahmadinejad was a member of the Revolutionary Guards before he volunteered to join the military when his country went to war with Iraq in 1981.

The Iranian president caused a stir when, in October 2005, at an anti-Zionist conference in Tehran, he was reported as having said that Israel should be “wiped off the map” and that The Holocaust – the genocide of about six million European Jews during World War II as part of a programme of deliberate extermination planned and executed by Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler – was a myth.

But a section of scholars and experts in Middle East affairs have come to his defence, saying his message was lost in the translation and thus he was misquoted.

According to the BBC, in 2005, the president banned Western and “indecent” music from state-run media. Though he has allowed women to participate in major sporting events in the country, he has continued to enforce the campaign to have women obey Iran’s strict Islamic dressing codes.

The following sources were used for this article: BBC, New York Times, CNN, Timesonline, Aljazeera, New Yorker, Tehran Times, The Jerusalem Post, Washington Post, Telegraph, IranChamber.com

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