Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)
La bombe et le Coran, une biographie du president iranien Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (The Bomb and the Koran, a Biography of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) by Michel Taubman, Editions du Moment, 2008, 255 pp. [French]
Reviewed by Michelle Mazel
His face has graced the cover of the world’s leading magazines. His name may be nearly unpronounceable but is nevertheless a household word. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been compared by his admirers to Saladin who defeated the Crusaders, and by some of his detractors to Hitler. Others say he is just plain mad. He told Angela Merkel that the Holocaust had been invented after the war by the Allies to embarrass Germany. He routinely declares that the destruction of Israel is the key to solving the Middle East crisis and has been known to call explicitly for wiping that country off the map.
Ahmadinejad is also quoted as saying that the end of the United States is near. There is a very real possibility that he might one day soon have nuclear weapons at his disposal. He is known to be a devout Muslim, a mystic who believes he has been called upon to hasten the coming of the Mahdi, the vanished Imam of the Shiite whose return will usher in a new era of world peace and harmony under the rule of Islam. If it takes a nuclear war to destroy the US and Israel and bring about this coming, will Ahmadinejad deem the price was right? The fate of the world may well hinge on the answer to that question. But what do we really know about Ahmadinejad, the man who has presided over the destiny of Iran since 2005?
French political scientist and editor of the Meilleur des mondes [Best of all Worlds] quarterly, Michel Taubman,decided to investigate, because he believes the fate of the world may well hinge on the behavior of a little known man catapulted from obscurity by his surprise election to the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2005. Taubman discovered that the past of Ahmadinejad is shrouded in mystery. He may have been born on 28 October 1956, as stated in his official biography; however there is no proof, nor do we know precisely where he was born. On his blog (for the Iranian president has his own blog – and in a variety of languages too!) he says: “I was born in a poor family in the remote village of Garmsar approximately 90 kilometers east of Teheran.” Perhaps. Alternative locations are suggested by other sources. Slightly more intriguing is the fact that at the time, the family name was…. Sabarian, not Ahmadinejad. That tidbit is not on the blog. When was the name changed? Why? According to Taubman, Ahmad, the name of his father is also linked to the name of the Prophet and together with the suffix nejad indicates one descended from that emblematic figure, definitely a useful asset for a Muslim politician.
What did his father do for a living? Was he a blacksmith as his son claims, or a hairdresser as some of his contemporaries told Western journalists? Or maybe his father died and his mother remarried? These details may seem irrelevant and they would be if a deliberate effort had not been made to muddy the waters. What is known is that the family was poor. As a child, says Taubman, the future president went to a local school where religious studies were given priority. Former schoolmates remember a shy youngster who was reluctant to put himself forward. Ahmadinejad boasts that he was an outstanding student and that his knowledge of the Koran amazed his teachers.
He graduated from high school in 1975 (which would have made him nearly twenty years old) and, according to his blog quoted by Taubman, placed 132 out of 400,000 candidates for the national university entrance examinations. Far from being accepted by one of the leading institutions of higher learning as would have been expected, the young man went on to study civil engineering at the Elm-O Sana technical university, ranked fifth from the bottom among the scientific institutions of Iran.
The years that follow were heady for the young student. The Islamic revolution drove out the shah and his imperial family, and Imam Khomeini was brought back from France to lead his country. Somehow Ahmadinejad was among his earliest devotees. He had already shown signs of the religious fanaticism that became his trademark. Fellow students – talking to Taubman and other Western media under guarantee of the strictest anonymity through a very real fear of what could happen to them – tell of a bearded young man getting into fist fights with his leftist secular classmates.
Nevertheless, the young Ahmadinejad found a bride who did not wear the veil, studied in a prestigious university and had leftist tendencies… The young lady, who gave him two sons and a daughter, must have seen the errors of her ways. Since her husband was elected president, she has only been seen in public once, during an official trip to Malaysia, covered from head to foot in strict Islamic garb with only her horn-rimmed glasses showing through the narrow face slit.
There is a distinct lack of reliable information concerning the eighties and the nineties. What is known is that Ahmadinejad received a diploma in engineering only in 1997. What happened in between? Was he among the hundreds of Islamic students who stormed the American embassy in Teheran and took 63 Americans hostages? A BBC correspondent claims to have seen him there, and a number of embassy officials remember him clearly as a rabid hater of Americans who interrogated the prisoners mercilessly. He has denied it formally.
The CIA investigated but did not come to a clear-cut conclusion. Ahmadinejad, however, was first denied a visa when he decided to attend the UN General Assembly after his election, and it was only through the intervention of the State Department that he was finally granted entry, though with restrictions. The president is proud of his role during the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the eighties, but opponents claim he rapidly left the battlefield to take a key position in the internal security apparatus. Once again he is suspected of involvement in a number of atrocities, from political assassinations to making sure condemned prisoners were dead by giving them a final shot in the brain… True or false? Who knows?
Ahmadinejad steadily climbed the rungs of the political ladder. He was first governor of some obscure provinces then, after a temporary reverse in 1997 – enabling him to finish his university studies and to infuse the Islamic student movement with renewed energy – he ran for mayor of Teheran in 2003. By that time he was firmly entrenched in the camp of Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, perhaps the most extreme advocate of radical Islam, a man who justified slavery and called for the execution without trial of any Muslim straying from the path of orthodoxy. Yazdi claimed to be in touch with the Mahdi. His motto: “one Islam, one country, one guide”… as well as “victory through fear.”
And indeed Ahmadinejad was elected mayor with a voter turnout of just 12%, the candidate’s supporters having successfully intimidated the opposition into staying at home. Two years later, when he announced he would run for President in the spring of 2005, the first public opinion surveys credited him with barely 1%. Two months later, Ayatollah Khamenei threw his full support behind him. Results of the first round of voting placed him just behind Rafsanjani and well ahead of Larijani among reports of massive electoral fraud.
All predicted an easy victory for Rafsanjani in the runoff but Ahmedinejad was the surprise winner among reports of even greater vote tampering. Officially, voter turnout was 62%; independent sources claim that it was a mere 16%. No matter. At 49, the poor little boy from Gamsar or thereabouts became the new president of Iran. That was three years ago. Since then, he has been busy building his country’s nuclear program.
Should we worry?
Taubman’s conclusion is as follows: “brandishing the Koran in one hand and the bomb in the other, he fans embers which may one day engulf the planet in flames.” This well-researched book nevertheless leaves the reader dissatisfied. It is not easy to follow Ahmadinejad’s path to the top through the maze of Iranian political parties and political movements. One cannot but wonder who guided him or pulled the strings.
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MICHELLE MAZEL is a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Faculté de Droit of that city.