Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: A man who favors cheap windbreakers, sensible shoes, and 9/11 conspiracy theories
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spoke at the UN today, has been called a 'ranting loon.' But the real Ahmadinejad is far more complex.
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That puts Ahmadinejad in the middle of a series of overlapping conflicts.Skip to next paragraph
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Hated by reformers, suspected by clerics
To the US and its closest allies, he's the face of a regime whose civilian nuclear program is suspected of being a cover for the construction of a nuclear bomb. Regionally, he's a symbol of Muslim resistance of Israel and opposition to the US.
And at home, he's both hated by reformers who believe he stole the last presidential election and viewed with suspicion by parts of the clerical establishment, who think he's trying to increase his power at their expense.
"Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds the true levers of power, especially on political and national security matters [in Iran]," Mohamad Bazzi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Ahmadinejad's UN visit this week. "But Mr. Ahmadinejad's role has changed: he has seized far more authority than he had a few years ago and he is working tirelessly to eliminate his political opponents. It has become much harder to ignore his antics and poisonous rhetoric."
The engineer who excelled in school
That Ahmadinejad would become such a central international figure would have been unthinkable just seven years ago, when the PhD engineer and civil servant was selected by Tehran's conservative city council as mayor.
He was born in 1956 into a working class family (his father was an iron worker) in the city of Garmsar, about 50 miles south of Tehran. The family moved to the capital when he was a boy, and he excelled academically.
Ahmadinejad's rise to power
The platform for Ahmadinejad's rise came as something of a fluke.
In 1999, reformists swept to power in the Tehran city council election, but failed to bring meaningful change to their constituents in the following three years.
The 2003 election was largely abandoned by reformist voters and had dismal turnout – less than 15 percent – which delivered a city government of hard-line conservatives. It was they who placed Ahmadinejad – a former basiji in the Revolutionary Guard, a minor figure in Iran and virtually unknown internationally – in power.
From mayor to president
Ahmadinejad's leadership of Iran's largest city gave him a bully pulpit, and he consistently projected the image of a simple, pious man, which struck a chord with Iranians tired of the corruption of many of the clerics and politicians that had ruled them since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In 2005, backed by many conservatives, Ahmadinejad won the presidency over Hashami Rafsanjani, a cleric who favored a more conciliatory tone to the outside world, after a campaign in which he painted his opponent as corrupt. He was the first non-cleric to become president in 24 years, setting up what has become a power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the clerical establishment.
A populist, he plays far better in Iran's smaller towns and cities than he does among the elites in Tehran. Though he often talks of Iran's global importance and demands international respect, his promise to deliver jobs to the poor and listen to the working class is largely responsible for his popularity.
(This story was updated after Mr. Ahmadinejad's speech).