For seven years the "Islamic contingent" from Tehran had become one of the fixed features of the World Economic Forum's annual session in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.
Members of the contingent were easily spottable. They wore collarless shirts and Mao-style jackets, sported designer stubbles, fondled expensive agate rosaries, mostly kept to themselves, and disappeared several times a day- supposedly to perform prayers. A jovial mullah, wearing a black turban, who quoted from Hobbes and Hegel while sipping espresso, was their leader.
Over the years the "Tehran contingent" spun a cobweb of business and political contacts that helped modify the image of the Islamic Republic as a rogue state bent on mischief. Lucrative deals were negotiated on the sidelines, with enough gravy to fill every ladle. In time the contingent managed to entice a number of Western have-beens, some never-weres, and even more wannabes, into joining a banquet that honest men would not attend without a long spoon.
Few Davosians harboured any illusions about the Jekyll-and Hyde nature of the banquet master. But most used self-deception to persuade themselves that, in this particular case, evil was an adjective not a noun. Some Davos habitués pushed self-deception to beyond its comical limits by suggesting that the Khomenist ideology was nothing but the Islamic version of social democracy. Bill Clinton, a former President of the United States, told an astonished audience in Davos last year that th Islamic Republi if Irn was the one country n the world where he felt " politically most at home" and that theleadership in Tehran consisted of " guys with whom I most identify with" in political terms.
Reality, however, has naughty habit of disturbing such banquets of illusions like a gate-crasher. This is what happened last summer when the "North Koreans of Islam" won the presidency in the Islamic Republic, formed a radical new administration and, to everyone's surprise, deliberately provoked a conflict with the Western powers. In the process they also made it clear that the Davosian vision of Khomeinism had been nothing but a phantasmal concoction.
As a result, instead of the previous years' sessions about "trading with Iran" and "investing in Iran", the forum this year offered a session labelled "targeting Tehran."
The real issue, however, is neither trading nor targeting Tehran. Without a proper understanding of the nature of the present regime in Tehran, nothing could be done about the so-called "Iranian crisis" either through trade or the use of force.
The present Iranian regime is not a lovey-dovey arrangement symbolised by a cuddly mullah. Under Khatami, who became Davos's favourite mullah, official hit men murdered scores of intellectuals while thousands were thrown in prison. More than150 newspapers and magazines were banned and thousands of books put on the black list.
The assumption that the eight-year Khatami presidency was a golden age of liberty brutally ended by Ahmadinejad is simply not true.
Ahmadinejad is neither the naive adventurer that the Davos crowd take him to be nor "ultra-conservative" that the Khatami-Rafsanjani cartel claim he is.
The truth is that he is a radical revolutionary acting in accordance with the character of the Khomeinist ideology, a messianic movement whose ambitions is to reshape the world after its own fashion.
On every one of the controversial issues that have provoked Davosian ire against Ahmadinejad, his rivals in Tehran, including Rafsanjani and Khatami, have always held identical views.
On the nuclear issue, the whole programme was revived under Rafsanjani just weeks after Khomeini's death in 1989.
Iran's clandestine relations with A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist who sold Tehran both know-how and equipment, started under Khatami. It was also under Khatami that the budget allocated to the nuclear project was increased fivefold.
Neither Khatami nor Rafsanjani have ever accepted the Holocaust as an historic fact. Nor has either of them acknowledged the right of Israel to exist. Throughout Rafsanjani's presidency the Islamic Republic waged a proxy war against Israel through the Lebanese branch of the Hezballah. Under Khatami, the Islamic Republic emerged as the principal source of funding for radical Palestinian groups and, on one occasion, was caught red-handed smuggling arms to Yasser Arafat's Al Fatah group.
Ahmadinejad's major sin is his refusal to practice " kitman", an old tradition under which lying for a cause that one believes to be good is not only allowed but obligatory. He is saying aloud what Rafsanjani and Khatami have always thought in silence.
The Rafsanjani-Khatami duo often spoke of a "dialogue of civilisations" but allowed no dialogue inside Iran itself.
Ahmadinejad openly speaks of a " clash of civilisations" both inside Iran and in the world at large. He does not want a seat at a panel in Davos; his dream is to abolish the capitalist system that produced Davos. He does not want Iran to become a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which he has described as "a club of global thieves". Nor is he tempted by the offer of preferential trade relations with the European Union that he sees as "a family of fat parasites living off other nations."
Thus the Davosians are as wrong now in debating whether or not to target Tehran as they were when they ignored the Khomeinist regime's nature and gave the smiling mullahs red carpet treatment.
It would be wrong to think that Ahmadinejad is a seasonal freak.
With some important differences Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, and to some extent even Brazil's President Ignacio Lula de Silva, have adopted a similar populist discourse that is a world away from Davos.And last month they were joined by Bolivia's new President Evo Morales.
In a sense, Cuba's Fidel Castro and North Korea's Kim Jong-il could also be regarded as members of the same club.
As always the key features of this brand of politics are xenophobia, the cult of the " Supreme Leader", muscle-in-the-street tactics, fear of democracy, and hatred of whoever happens to be the "superpower" of the time, and, in some cases a dose of anti-Semitism.
That brand of politics is not limited to the circle of populist leaders mentioned above. It also has an audience in many Western democracies, including the United States.
This neo- populism parts way with Khomeinism on a number of key social issues, including the status of women. Nevertheless, it is capable of offering Khomeinism a broader political habitat in which to avoid moral and cultural isolation.
Clinton was wrong when he described the Islamic Republic as the only country on earth where "progressive ideas" win elections. His fellow-American Senator John McCain, who hopes to become a presidential candidate in 2008, is equally wrong in thinking that the only problem with the Islamic Republic is its alleged plans to
manufacture nuclear weapons.
To fight this new brand of populism, which offers a home to both fascists and communists, we must first acknowledge its existence and understand its nature before we engage it on the battlefield of ideas. This neo-populism is not the first radical ideology to cast itself in the role of challenger to democracy. But, like its predecessors, it, too, could and will be defeated.