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IRAN'S PERILOUSLY HONEST MAN
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
November 8, 2005

November 8, 2005 -- AS Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepared to mark his first 100 days as president Saturday, his foes within the system were conducting a massive campaign of character assassination against him — with leaks, sound bites and outright attacks in the media and public gatherings.

Two mullahs, former presidents, led the campaign. One, Hashemi Rafsanjani, has not yet recovered from the shock of losing to Ahmadinejad, whom he had once dismissed as a "lightweight." The other, Muhammad Khatami, is sore because Ahmadinejad cut the budget of the "dialogue of civilizations" that the former president had created to hoodwink the Western powers and the Arabs into believing that the regime was burying its Khomeinist ideology for good.

Both mullahs also worry about the audit that Ahmadinejad has ordered of public finances over the past 16 years — that is to say, during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies. An initial report claims that some $120 billion out of a total of $600 billion in Iran's oil income since 1979 is not "properly accounted for." And many in the Khatami-Rafsanjani faction have also lost the plum jobs they had secured over the past 16 years. The purge started by Ahmadinejad has spread to major public corporations, long milked for favors.

All this could pull the carpet from under the feet of the elite of rich mullahs and their hangers-on that formed over the past quarter-century. Some of the new rich produced by the Islamic revolution have already fled the country for the West. Others are selling their assets — hence the "take the money and run" collapse of the Tehran Stock Exchange.

But rich mullahs also hate Ahmadinejad because he is reviving the original revolutionary discourse of Khomeinism without dissimulation.

The concepts and ideas that Rafsanjani and Khatami treated as mere metaphors are being redefined as literal truths under Ahmadinejad. One key concept is that of the Hidden Imam, the awaited Mahdi of the Twelver Shi'ites. To Rafsanjani and Khatami, this has little immediate relevance to the actual life of society. Ahmadinejad, however, has restored it as the central truth of Iran's political, cultural, economic and social life.

The new president has written and signed a pact with the Hidden Imam — and has asked all officials to do so. Taken to its logical conclusion, this move dispenses with the need for any mullahs — including the "Supreme Guide."

This reinterpretation of Twelver Shi'ism excludes not only any form of rule by the mullahs but also any form of electoral democracy. In this way, Ahmadinejad hopes to outflank the two principal political forces that have been fighting for power in Iran since the middle of the 19th century. His message is: Neither mullahrchy, nor democracy.

Ahmadinejad has also changed the Islamic Republic's international profile. Rafsanjani and Khatami spoke one way inside Iran and another way outside; Ahmadinejad uses the same discourse everywhere. He addressed the United Nations just as he does a gathering of Jihadists in a Tehran suicide-bomber training camp.

Where Rafsanjani and Khatami tried to redefine Islam to please the modern world, a world that is shaped and dominated by Western ideas, Ahmadinejad is trying to revive the purest definition of the faith. He asserts that Islam is an alternative to the current global system, not a candidate for becoming a small part of it.

Those who have tried to build a life on the basis of a little bit of Islam and a little bit of Western modernism are made uncomfortable by Ahmadinejad — who is forcing everyone to take sides.

Seen in that context, his pledge to wipe Israel off the map like "a stain of shame" is an attempt to force everyone to take sides. He is asking everyone to decide the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Is it only about statehood, borders, security, sharing of water, settlements and diplomatic relations? If so, it cannot, should not, be treated as a religious conflict, Muslim vs. Jew. It would be a political conflict, one of countless such throughout history — and all the religious energy injected into it over the past half-century must be regarded as misplaced.

But if we face something other than a political conflict, there can be no question of ever accepting the existence of Israel as a state within any frontiers. Treaties signed with Israel become documents not of political expediency but of apostasy.

In 100 days, Ahmadinejad has shaken many mullahs on their pulpits and more monkeys up their trees — by asking everyone to be honest with themselves. He believes the world is heading for a clash of civilizations in which Islam is the only credible alternative to Western domination. And he is convinced that Islam will win.

It is now up to everyone to decide whether to take that analysis seriously, or dismiss it as the juvenile illusions of a novice who will, in time, learn that the real world is different.

But the dilemma that Ahmadinejad has created for Islamists inside and outside Iran remains. He says Islam is not just a flavor to add to policies that are not, indeed cannot be, Islamic. Either we go the whole way and abolish politics as a space distinct from religion, or we stop using religion as a device to give our policies the legitimacy they do not deserve.

Posing such questions is no mean feat.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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