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(photo credit: AP)
A month after being elected president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shared some of his thoughts with a TV audience. "Is there art that is more beautiful, more divine and more eternal than the art of martyrdom?" he asked.
In the video clip, which aired on Iran's Channel 1 in late July and was subsequently translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Ahmadinejad went on to declare that Islam will "conquer all the mountain tops of the world."
Iran experts first thought that such statements were nothing more than the missteps of a political novice catapulted to the international stage. Surely, the former mayor of Teheran would soon realize that he could no longer indulge in revolutionary fantasies.
Unfortunately, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is about as radical as one can get. He talks repeatedly about wiping Israel off the map, the "myth" of the Holocaust and a clash of civilizations with the West. The only upside, if there is one at all, is that he is not the supreme ruler of the Islamic Republic.
Ahmadinejad was born in 1956, the son of a blacksmith. Yet despite his modest upbringing, the future leader of Iran went on to get a doctorate in traffic management from Teheran's University of Science and Technology. In 2005, two years after becoming mayor of Teheran, he ran for president on a social justice platform.
However, as a former Islamic Revolutionary Guardsman, Ahmadinejad's strongest support lies with those who believe that, for Iran to be a world leader, the country needs to return to the original, fire-and-brimstone vision of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
"About 75 percent of the men he appoints as governors, ministers and deputy ministers are ex-Revolutionary Guard people," notes Meir Litvak, an Iran expert at the University of Tel Aviv. "He is cultivating the hardliners of the hardliners - and of course, these are the people who support him."
In late October, Ahmadinejad was speaking to his fellow ideological travelers when, at a Teheran conference entitled "World Without Zionism," he said that "Israel should be wiped off the map."
The comment earned the president international condemnation. Even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stepped up to the plate and pointedly reminded the Islamic Republic that "under the United Nations Charter, all members have undertaken to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."
At that very same conference, Ahmadinejad also outlined his theory of an ongoing clash of civilizations with the non-Muslim world. MEMRI translated him as saying, "We are in the process of an historical war between the World of Arrogance [i.e. the West] and the Islamic world, and this war has been going on for hundreds of years."
The threat to the West that Ahmadinejad presented was largely ignored.
"At first I thought Ahmadinejad was just blowing steam," said David Menashri, a professor at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. "But he keeps repeating the same things again and again. It's becoming a pattern."
Indeed, the Iranian president has gone on to suggest that Israel be moved to the United States, Canada, Austria or Germany (assuming, of course, the latter actually did perpetrate the Holocaust, and it is not all just Zionist propaganda).
If all this were not worrying enough, Ahmadinejad believes that God speaks through him. A report picked up by Radio Free Europe in November has the Iranian president telling a leading cleric about a miracle that occurred during the delivery of his UN General Assembly address. A man, Ahmadinejad told the ayatollah, saw him basking in a divine light when speaking before the nations of the world.
"He said, 'When you began with the words "in the name of God," I saw that you became surrounded by a light until the end [of the speech],'" said Ahmadinejad. "I felt it myself, too. I felt that all of a sudden the atmosphere changed there, and for 27-28 minutes all the leaders did not blink."
If there is any hope, it is this: The man really in charge of Iranian foreign policy is not Ahmadinejad but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is no reformist, but he is not a political novice, either. For now, there does not seem to be any major change in Iranian security policies.
Whether any happens in the future remains to be seen.
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