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Asia/South Asia
Humble son of revolution
Gareth Smyth

          Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad was barely known when he won last year's presidential elections. Few in Iran had even taken his candidacy seriously. Yet five months after taking office, the austere 49-year-old has become a recognisable and highly controversial figure on the international stage.
Through defiant rhetoric and rebellious actions, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has alarmed Iran's neighbours and compounded European and American anxiety over Tehran's nuclear programme. His call for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and, later, that the Jewish state be moved to Europe came just as Iran's two-year nuclear negotiations with the Europeans and the United Nations were headed for crisis.
In Tehran, officials and politicians argue that the president does not control nuclear or security policy. The post was created to run the administration and the big decisions rest with a collective leadership headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader and the last word on matters of state.
But the arrival of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has diluted the moderating influence of reformists in the regime and, perhaps more importantly, of so-called "conservative pragmatists" led by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who were closely involved in nuclear policy. As European governments prepare to escalate diplomatic pressure and report Iran to the UN Security Council, officials in Europe say that with Mr Ahmadi-Nejad as president, Iran is more likely to miscalculate and find itself in confrontation with the west.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's landslide election victory in June had nothing to do with foreign policy, but was based on his reputation for honesty, humility and piety. He had the support of radical elements in the regime, including many of the Basij Islamic militia. But he also captured the disillusionment of ordinary Iranians with the previous administration of Mohammad Khatami, which was perceived as having placed too much emphasis on political reforms and less on unemployment, inflation and corruption.
In a country rife with resentment against officials living the good life, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was the son of a blacksmith, a hard-working family man from a humble home. He drove an old Peugeot and had not taken a holiday during two years as mayor of Tehran, a period when he replaced the extravagance of a reformist predecessor indicted for corruption with a municipal efficiency bordering on austerity.
A school colleague remembers him as studious and quiet. "If we younger boys were fighting he might hold us apart and tell us to pray instead," he recalls.
In June, his key campaign slogan promised "oil money on the sofreh", a reference to the floor cloth on which traditional and poor Iranians sit to eat lunch. His message was also nostalgic. His call for a return to the egalitarian ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution evoked the 1980-88 war with Iraq, when he served as an engineer with the Basij, which had taken heavy casualties at the front. For Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, the war was a golden age of comradeship and unity. The self-sacrifice of Iranian fighters embodied the martyrdom central to the history and practices of Shia Islam.
In religion as much as anything, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is a man of simplicities, naturally at ease with the mysticism of many poor Iranians, both in the cities and the small towns and villages across a country larger than Turkey, Iraq and Syria combined.
He shows a particular reverence for the 12th Imam, the Mahdi (guided one), the leader Shia Muslims believe went into hiding in 941AD and who will one day return for a period of just earthly rule before a Day of Judgement. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad highlighted the Imam in his October UN speech, confusing western diplomats and worrying Arab officials, whose majority Sunni populations do not believe in the Imam's return. When an Iranian website posted a video of the president telling a senior ayatollah in the holy city of Qom about a "green light" he had sensed during the UN speech, alarm bells rang among lran's political and religious elites.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's rapid rise means he is not an insider in an establishment cemented by intricate ties of religious affiliation, marriage and material interest. He rapidly ran into problems with the conservative-controlled Majlis (parliament), which rejected three of his nominees for oil minister, forcing him to opt for a ministry insider at odds with his desire to curb the "oil mafia" he said ran the sector.
For Ayatollah Khamenei, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is a mixed blessing. His election was a triumph for conservative forces and he professes loyalty to the leader. Yet his radicalism and unpredictability make his political influence a potential danger. Ayatollah Khamenei's reshuffling of the Revolutionary Guards is seen by many as an attempt to curb the president's influence in a crucial bulwark of the regime.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad remains popular within his constituency, most obviously among the Basij militia, but also, at least for now, in the wider population.
However, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's Iranian critics are concerned by his radicalism, especially as he reaches out -- through, for example, his attacks on Israel -- to the Islamic poor at home and abroad. Mr Khatami last month warned of a "fanatical" interpretation of Islam. Still, the prospect of an international crisis holds little fear for Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, a man who trusts in God and whose formative years were in the trenches of war with Iraq, when Iran's enemy was backed by the US, Russia and all the Arab regimes bar Syria. One of the senior clerics Mr Ahmadi-Nejad reveres in Qom, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, has long advocated cultural isolation from the west to maintain the purity of Iran's Islam.
Iran has worked hard to diversify suppliers and encourage self-sufficiency during a 26-year US embargo that has blocked parts for civilian aircraft, complicated banking and denied Iran technology. According to a regime insider, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad told a meeting of Iran's senior leadership in September they should not worry about further international sanctions, which were simply "not important". And with oil past $60 a barrel and rising, Iranian officials doubt that the west -- much less energy-hungry Asia -- will block exports from the world's fourth biggest supplier.
It is this readiness to defy the world that so alarms Iran's reformists, who have long argued confrontation could strengthen the fundamentalists. Their fear now is that belligerence and isolation could, at least in the short term, tip the balance in Iran's leadership in Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's direction -- with dangerous consequences for Iran, the region and the wider Islamic world.
Under syndication arrangement with FE


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