After 8 defiant years, Ahmadinejad leaves Iran isolated and cash-strapped

Iran's most divisive president since the 1979 revolution initially won praise, but his successor is now tasked with undoing the damage Ahmadinejad wrought at home and abroad.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during Friday prayers ceremonies, after attending an annual nation-wide pro-Palestinian rally marking Jerusalem Day, in Tehran, Iran, today. Mr. Ahmadinejad made his final public speech as president today before he steps down and Hassan Rohani comes to power, bringing with him expectations of sweeping change.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today ascended to the global stage one last time, capping his tumultuous eight-year presidency with an anti-Israel harangue that made no mention of the political damage he is widely perceived as inflicting upon the Islamic Republic and its leadership. 

Damage control from Mr. Ahmadinejad’s legacy at home and abroad is sure to absorb much of the early work of the incoming centrist President-elect Hassan Rohani, who brings with him expectations of sweeping change. 

The cleric and former nuclear negotiator has promised an economic turnaround, easing Iran’s isolation, nuclear “transparency,” and above all, moderation. He will be sworn into office on Sunday.

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There are already promising signs. Although they lean conservative, Mr. Rohani’s cabinet selections span much of Iran’s wide political spectrum, indicating that the new president is trying to avoid past pitfalls. 

“It’s exactly the opposite of Ahmadinejad’s closed circle of people,” says a veteran analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “Rohani is choosing from various groups of people. This is a lesson learned: If you keep everyone to some degree happy, there is more chance of achieving something, and less hew and cry when he makes a decision that seems controversial.”

“Out of the negativity of Ahmadinejad has appeared something that we predicted would come years ago, but didn’t come: a new power in the center that would grow to include moderates from both sides,” says the analyst.   

The downward spiral

By far Iran’s most divisive president since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s populist tactics, humble origins as a blacksmith’s son, and fearless attacks against Israel, Zionism, and most famously the Holocaust, won him early praise at home and across the Middle East.

But his fraud-tainted reelection in 2009 – in which Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Ahmadinejad’s victory a “divine assessment” that could not be challenged – sparked months of protests that were crushed violently, and a spiral of economic mismanagement and unprecedented challenges to Mr. Khamenei’s own power.

Not only did Ahmadinejad increasingly view his post as an imperial presidency – racking up in one year a record 4,943 notifications from parliament for failing to implement the law – but his second term saw a surge in US-led global sanctions against Iran and dangerous deadlock in nuclear talks.

“The more [Ahmadinejad] challenged the very foundations of the Islamic regime such as the legislative bodies, the more he was seen as a threat to the country and the Islamic system,” says another political analyst in Tehran, who also asked not to be named.

Ahmadinejad stood up to Khamenei over several top appointments, would sometimes sulk for days, and frequently threatened (“Should I say? Should I say?” he would ask) to expose high-level wrongdoing among political enemies gleaned from intelligence files.

“His challenges to the Leader weakened both [and] actually broke a taboo,” says the second analyst. “Ahmadinejad’s presence in power has weakened the position of the Leader in society and among political players…. Ahmadinejad’s challenge had one result: Diminishing [Khamenei’s] authority.”

From regime darling to outsider

Iran experts say the apparently clean conduct of the mid-June election that gave Rohani just over half the overall count, more than all five of his harder-line conservative opponents combined, has by itself begun to repair the damage wrought by both Ahmadinejad and the 2009 events.   

Yet today, instead of trying to polish his own legacy for the history books, Ahmadinejad marked Jerusalem Day – which in Israel marks the reunification of the ancient city – in typical combative fashion, claiming that American leaders were “all” Zionists; that US presidents had to “kneel in front of Zionism” before becoming candidates; and that viruses had been released around the world in order to sell vaccines at higher prices.

“Your happiness will not last long. The main wave of awakening is just ahead…. You have no place in our region,” the outgoing president warned, according to a simultaneous translation by state-run PressTV. “A storm is on the way, I’m sure, and that will annihilate the Zionist regime.” 

Few listen to Ahmadinejad in Iran anymore, and politicians and newspapers have been scathing in their assessments both of his record, and of his mishandling of facts. Since the president’s tussle with Khamenei’s over the choice of intelligence minister in 2011, it has been open season against Ahmadinejad even from fellow conservatives, who accused him of leading a “deviant current,” and of “sorcery” among his top aides.

In interviews this week, Ahmadinejad said he had not passed a “red light” in ignoring the law and that is was his job to “safeguard” the constitution. But Iranian media listed the presidential highlights as a $2.6 billion fraud by top officials, and only 542,000 jobs created in eight years, not the 7 million claimed by the government. 

The head of Rohani’s transition team, Akbar Torkan, told Shargh newspaper that many of the “facts” presented by Ahmadinejad’s government to Khamenei were wrong, and an apparent bid to burnish achievements. Torkan said the outgoing cabinet reported building 63,500 kilometers (almost 40,000 miles) of road, for example, but that the actual figure was a quarter that, with the rest only maintenance of rural roads.

“There are similar mistakes… that have made the reports inaccurate,” Mr. Torkan said.

Pithily, the powerful conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli told Etemaad newspaper: “Ahmadinejad is the third millennium’s wonder and will never be repeated.”

Indeed, parliamentarian Ali Motahari responded this week to calls for apologies before any release from house arrest of two former 2009 presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who led the Green Movement protests.

“If these two must apologize, is there not a need for an apology from Mr. Ahmadinejad, who prepared the firewood of sedition with his behavior and opinion?” Mr. Motahari asked.

The butt of jokes 

Another key correction will be restoration of a management body, after Ahmadinejad dismantled the Management and Planning Organization.

Under the slogan of change, Ahmadinejad broke the circuit of experienced managers who moved from job to job in the Islamic system, kicking them out to make way for a new generation.

“The idea was good, but the way he did it was a disaster,” says the first Tehran analyst. “He was so pessimistic toward intellectuals, towards bureaucrats, technocrats, typical of somebody who came from below with all the complexes and with all the problems.” 

The diminutive president – whose aides would quietly push a step up to the podium before speeches, so Ahmadinejad would reach the microphones – was a flamboyant speaker who oversaw a bid to expand Iran’s “soft power” in South America, Africa and the Middle East, and reveled in the launch of Iran’s first space satellites, and its scientific nuclear and nanotechnology progress. 

He declared Iran a “superpower, real and true,” and in 2008 said the Shiite Messiah, the Mahdi, was in charge of the Islamic Republic’s destiny. In fact, his barely hidden belief in the Mahdi’s imminent return was greeted by many clerics as superstitious politicking.

“We see the hand of this holy management every day. God knows that we see it,” Ahmadinejad declared.

In the first 100 days of Ahmadinejad’s rule in 2005, Iranians joked that in that short time he had spawned more jokes than every one of Persia’s long line of presidents, monarchs, and rulers combined. 

Today, one of the many jokes among Iranians is that Ahmadinejad should now be put into a museum, and exhibited every time someone says they don’t want to vote. It refers to the 2005 election, when many supporters of Ahmadinejad’s rivals stayed at home and “did not believe the danger” his presidency would create. 

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