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The Unpopular Populist

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is ending his presidency an outcast—but that was his destiny from the start

Getty/Atta Kenare

Later this month, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will conclude his second term as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's anyone's guess how he'll spend his time thereafter—the Ahmadinejad Global Initiative, anyone?—but it's probably safe to say that he's ready to leave Tehran’s presidential palace. The past year, after all, has been an extended lame duck period during which he has been berated in parliament, castigated by the Iranian press, and forced to watch as his chosen successor, Esfandiar Mashaei, was disqualified from even participating in the June 14 election. This past week, Ahmadinejad was reduced to expressing wan hopes that “God's grace” will intervene to reverse this latter “injustice.”

For someone who presided over the imprisonment of his competitors in the last presidential election, and routinely trolled sensible people everywhere by denying the Holocaust, this has been a humbling decline. Having arrived with a bang, Ahmadinejad now seems fated to depart with a whimper. But if that comes as a disappointment to the president's supporters in Iran, it really shouldn't come as a surprise. Ahmadinejad, after all, was an unrepentant populist in a country where authentic populism has enormous odds stacked against it. It’s not that Ahmadinejad wasn’t effective at expressing a mixture of religious fealty and crude nationalism—it’s that Iran’s political system discovered it simply couldn’t tolerate the combination.

In truth, that combination has always been tenuous. Islam and nationalism are distinct—and often conflicting—strands of Iranian identity. Iranians won't deny that Islam is a powerful force in their country, but most also insist on staking claim to the country's long pre-Islamic culture; this is a country where people still denounce the “Arab invasion” that introduced Islam a millennium ago, and carefully tend to a language that survived the long era of Arab imperialism.

The tumultuous events of the 1979 revolution managed to intertwine nationalism and Islamism in a way that briefly obscured the tensions between them. Among the revolutionaries were secular nationalists ands religious zealots; westernized liberals and chauvinist Marxists. It's not just that these people didn't agree on a vision for Iran's political future—they didn't even agree on what it meant to be an Iranian. That should have been evident to anyone who read the contradiction-riddled constitution adopted in the revolution's early going: It established a parliament and an elected presidency—institutions which implied the sovereignty of the Iranian public—but it placed them alongside clerical bodies which depended entirely on religious authority. (The crisis that dominated the early years of the Islamic Republic, Iran's war with Iraq, helped elide the tensions by presenting a general state of emergency—one that could both be portrayed as a nationalist retaliation against an Arab foe and as a religious crusade.)

If this doesn't seem like a tenable arrangement, that's because it wasn't (and still isn't). Over time, it's become clear that the clerics, and their allies in the Revolutionary Guard, have acquired the majority of power—and the monopoly of violence—in Iran, with the intention of using it to their own ends. But they would also prefer not to entirely alienate Iranians for whom religion is only an aspect, and not the entirety, of their lives. (Not to mention the many Iranians who support campaigns to “purify” the language of Arabic words and names.)

That's where Ahmadinejad comes in. Ahmadinejad has always been an extraordinarily skilled populist, with a particular talent for reflecting the concerns and aspirations of Iran's lower-middle-class masses. He looks like them (shaggy beard) and dresses like them (baggy clothes). For the vast majority of his life, he lived like them, in a simple household with traditional manners and gender divisions. Above all, he talks like them; his speeches and interviews are always laced with familiar, sometimes crude, Persian vernacular. 

Ahmadinejad even inhabits downtrodden Iranians' style of religiosity, in which Islam is fluently translated into a provincial Persian idiom. For the country's ruling clerics, Islamic morality is naturally conveyed through study of the original Arabic source material; but for Ahmadinejad, and the many millions like him in Iran, the ethics of Islam are more a matter of lived experience—something that consists in custom and superstition, and shows of obligation at the bazaar and the neighborhood shrine. The relevant quality of Ahmadinejad's religiosity never seemed to be the purity of his belief, but the depth of his piety. And that has always allowed him to stump in two distinct registers, Islamist and nationalist, at the same time. 

This worked well enough to get him elected once (if not twice). But when it came to translating this sensibility into policy, the seams inevitably began to show. In office, Ahmadinejad was forced repeatedly into making a choice between his commitments to the clergy and the interests of the broader public. Ahmadinejad was perfectly capable, for instance, of defending Iran's right to a nuclear program as an abstract proposition. But when international sanctions began to bite, Iranians concerned about their economic well-being would have preferred he find a diplomatic way to prevent the country from becoming an international pariah. Instead, Ahmadinejad pursued a course of economic isolation that mostly appealed to the sorts of Iranians pre-disposed to Shiite notions of martyrdom and ideological suspicions of Western infidels.

The split between nationalist concerns and Islamist priorities has always diverged most widely when it comes to Israel. Israel and Iran aren't neighbors, and the Palestinians who are in conflict with Israel have no shared history or ethnicity with the majority of Iranians. That the Islamic Republic has a policy of sacrificing diplomatic prestige and money in support of Hamas and Hezbollah is scarcely comprehensible from a nationalist perspective. Indeed, one of the attacks wielded against Ahmadinejad in his 2009 re-election campaign was the fact that his government was funneling oil profits to Palestine at a time when Iranians were already suffering from sanctions. It was an instance of Iran's essentially Islamic commitments directly imperiling the president's popularity with the public.

So it's perhaps no surprise that Ahmadinejad, canny populist that he is, soon began to privilege secular Iranian nationalism over fealty to Islam, and thumbed his nose at the Islamic establishment throughout his second term. He began calling explicitly for an “Iranian Islam,” a culture unembarrassed by Iran's pre-Islamic grandeur. Rather than endorse the Islamic Republic's traditional neglect of Nowruz—Iran's traditional pre-Islamic New Year celebration, which was openly reviled by Ayatollah Khomeini—Ahmadinejad invited other heads of state to celebrate the occasion in Tehran. (Ayatollah Khamenei left town during the festivities.) He has offered repeated praise of Iran's most celebrated pre-Islamic ruler, Cyrus the Great; suggested that men and women be allowed to attend soccer matches together; and openly attacked prominent clerics for their illicit accumulation of massive wealth. Meanwhile, Mashaei, his closest advisor, twice declared that Iran was not enemies with the Israeli people (forcing Khamenei to clarify that Iran and Israel are not “friends”).

We've now had a chance to observe the results. Khamenei loyalists have labeled Mashaei a practitioner of “black magic” and attacked Ahmadinejad for “sinful” conduct (the latter for the crime of hugging Hugo Chavez’s mother at his funeral) and both Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have essentially been excommunicated from the political elite. The coming election seems certain to result in a president who has little inclination of challenging the primacy of the religious establishment. By the same measure, it seems unlikely to produce a president with any real connection to the Iranian people. Khamenei has even speculated that he might eventually abolish the presidency entirely. Having abandoned years ago any pretense to democracy, Iran's regime may now be beginning to abandon any remaining claims to popular sovereignty.

In that way, Ahmadinejad's idea of an “Iranian Islam” might not turn out to be so ineffectual after all. It seems not to have reconciled Iranians' commitments to Islam and Iranian culture, as he may have hoped. But it may soon force them to make a decisive choice between the two.