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POLITICS-IRAN: Ahmadinejad’s Divine Inspiration

Analysis by Omid Memarian*

BERKELEY, California, Oct 26 2006 (IPS) - Amid a struggle between two major clerical factions for control of Iran’s influential Assembly of Experts, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to shore up his conservative base by portraying himself as a man with a direct link to god.

The president, who enjoys close ties to the country’s security services, has generally feeble support among the clergy system in the Islamic Republic. He is a strong supporter of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, one of the most radical clerics in Iran, who believes in an “Islamic Government” – where the ruler is chosen by god, through representatives like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – rather than the current Islamic Republic, where people vote for their leaders according to Islamic laws.

The Assembly of Experts election on Dec. 15 is significant because it could shift the balance of power between the pragmatic faction of conservatives led by former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and the radical faction represented by Ayatollah Yazdi.

The 86-member assembly is charged with electing and monitoring the Supreme Leader, who, according to Iran’s charter, has ultimate power over all other institutions and individuals, including the authority to interpret the constitution.

Rafsanjani supports joining the international community and opening up dialogue with the west, while Yazdi is a symbol of hostility toward western ideals and values. Since Ahmadinejad came to office, his pursuit of a nuclear power programme – ostensibly for peaceful civilian purposes – and harsh threats to “wipe Israel off the map” have isolated Iran more than ever.

His latest round of speeches emphasising god and religion feed this defiance regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, and also serve to subtly threaten civil society and political reformists in the country, a tactic that is strongly supported by Ayatollah Yazdi. The presence of Yazdi and his followers on the Assembly of Experts would empower Ahmadinejad’s wing more than ever, and give them greater influence with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

“I tell my friends most of the time, don’t worry about the nuclear issue, [because] they [westerners] are just bluffing,” Ahmadinejad said at a recent Ramadan fast-breaking ceremony, reported by Iran News website on Oct. 15. “I tell them that the West is disarmed toward us and doesn’t know how to handle this issue.”

“Believe me, we have been successful in terms of legal and public opinion. I am speaking from my own knowledge. Somebody asked me, ‘People say you are connected?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am’. ‘Do you really have a connection? With whom?’, and I said I have a connection to Godà if we stay faithful, God will show us his miracle,” Ahmadinejad said at a mosque in Tehran.

He also lashed out at George W. Bush, saying the U.S. president “also receives inspiration – but from Satan.”

Ahmadinejad’s speech came shortly after talks with European Union diplomats failed to achieve progress on halting Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. On Thursday, Russia said it opposed the latest draft proposal for sanctions being circulated at the U.N. Security Council by the EU, in particular provisions that would bar Russia’s participation in building a nuclear reactor at Bushehr, in southwestern Iran.

While many Iranian analysts have warned the conservative government not to overplay its hand and simplify the nuclear crisis in its negotiations with western countries, Ahmadinejad has assured supporters of the success of his nuclear policies.

“Now, they [western countries] are stuck in violent waters and don’t know what to do with us [on the nuclear issue]. We won’t retreat even a millimetre,” he said earlier this week. “Because if we retreat a little bit, they would say that we just retreated under the pressure. Secondly, if we do so, they will say to the world that, finally, Iranians stopped their enrichment activities. But didn’t we stop all our activities in the previous era [under President Mohammad Khatami] and what did we achieve? I assure you, with God’s will, we have gone most of the way and be sure that they do not have the courage to attack us.”

He also commented on the deployment of the Nimitz class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower to the Persian Gulf: “This is also one of those things. I say right now that your minds should be at ease. Two aircraft carriers are coming, so what? Now some in Iran are shouting that two carriers are coming… Actually I believe the fact that they’re coming shows that nothing is going to happen. If they leave the area then that is dangerous – that reveals that they have plans.”

It is not the first time that Ahmadinejad has claimed a direct connection to god. After addressing the U.N. General Assembly in September 2005, he said that someone present told him that a light surrounded him while he was delivering his speech. He added that he had also sensed it.

“I felt that all of a sudden the atmosphere changed there, and for 27-28 minutes all the leaders did not blink,” he asserted later at a meeting with one of Iran’s ranking ayatollahs, Javadi Amoli.

Ahmadinejad’s claims created a huge stir in Iran, with a transcript and video recording of his comments published on a conservative website, baztab.com and later widely circulated on a CD recording.

Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor at Rutgers State University in New Jersey and director of the University’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, who has met personally with the Iranian president, told IPS that he sensed renewed defiance despite the mounting international pressure.

“I met Ahmadinejad twice, when he came to deliver speeches to the General Assembly in 2005 and 2006. In our conversations, I felt his self-confidence has increased dramatically over the last year since he came to office in June 2004,” he said.

“Last year, I told Ahmadinejad that U.S.-Iran relations are getting very dangerous, and I think this danger has increased even more this year, and I am sorry you did nothing to remove this danger as the leader of Iran,” Amirahmadi said.

He says that Ahmadinejad responded that he disagreed, and added: “Last year we were facing the threat of war. But now we have the threat of sanctions which, with God’s will, we can cope with and move toward peace. Last year, the threat of war was looming, but now the real threat is just sanctions.”

While his statements seem designed to appeal to Iran’s conservative religious base, critics of the president’s domestic and foreign policies would likely agree with a famous Persian saying: “When you talk with God, you are a pure person, but when God talks to you, you must be insane.”

*Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and civil society activist. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch’s highest honour in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award.

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