Yet, little notice is being given to the upcoming end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, and the consequences this poses for Iran’s future and America’s stance toward its counterpart. America’s narrow understanding of Iran, coupled with that country’s own changing landscape, gives cause for great uncertainty in the post-Ahmadinejad years.
The overwhelming confidence with which Ahmadinejad undertook the leadership of Iran quickly reaffirmed the schism between Iran and the U.S. which, despite some signs of improvement, has existed since the 1979 Islamic revolution and U.S. embassy hostage crisis shortly after. His insistence only days into his presidency that Iran re-establish its nuclear program showed insolence and proved ominous for any hopes of improved western relations.
In the years since, his anti-Israel speeches and persistent provocation of the U.S. through strengthening ties with other radical regimes and development of Iran’s nuclear program have drawn him great international attention and affirmed his reputation as the showman he would so wish to be considered.
But when he leaves office at the end of this month (he is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term), will Ahmadinejad’s time in power be considered a success? Or has excessive attention been given to what has, in reality, been a largely unproductive era?
In his eight years in power, Ahmadinejad has divided opinion at home. He ran as a populist, seeking to gain the support of the working class and the average Iranian, rather than pandering to the social elites as his predecessors were seen to have done. As he established his reputation, he felt more confident in opposing the clerics, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with whom true power in Iran rests. Many have praised Ahmadinejad for his reformist stance, opposing political repression and human rights abuses, although skeptics suggest his distance from the fundamentalist establishment is exaggerated.
On the balance of things, it is difficult to argue that the president’s time in office has brought great success. The Western media often erroneously portray him as a strong, almost dictatorial leader, who in an instant could spark World War III. Yet his ability to draw attention to himself on the world stage has perhaps been his greatest success. At home, he has struggled to win on two fronts: both with the people and with the clerics.
Rather than arousing nationalist fervor, Ahmadinejad’s constant taunting of the West has been detrimental to Iran’s people who find themselves the victims of a struggling economy resulting from international sanctions. The U.S. recently announced its ninth round of sanctions against Iran which in recent years have had major effects on the nation’s oil export profits and banking services.
Diplomatically, Ahmadinejad has further isolated Iran from the international community by strengthening ties with radical regimes and pariah states such as Libya, Cuba, Syria and Lebanon. With most of its allies facing major political change, Iran stands to be left with few friends in the coming years, providing a good reason not to spark conflict with Israel and perhaps leading to greater cooperation with the rest of the world (Iran learned the lessons of political isolation during the Iran-Iraq War and will likely avoid a similar fate again).
Ahmadinejad has also perpetuated a power struggle within Iran, pitting the secular government against the religious establishment. From one perspective, Iran has changed much under the current president. The country is more socially progressive and appears as far removed from a fundamentalist Islamic nation as it has since the revolution. Yet if anything, this will further drive the Muslim clerics to redirect the nation in the aftermath of Ahmadinejad. It is already clear that the Supreme Leader is adamant to learn from his mistakes by barring two candidates from the upcoming election, both of whom would likely challenge his power.
So while America has looked on with great consternation as Ahmadinejad has vibrantly owned the stage, the reality proves that he will likely leave office with little sense of accomplishment, save that of potentially bringing Iran to a crossroads with great uncertainty ahead. The Supreme Leader will be looking to reaffirm the traditional Islamic nature of the country while consolidating his own power. Yet the people of Iran are not the same today as during the 1979 revolution, and the Ayatollah’s ability to prevent major social change may be limited.
Whatever the case, the world will not soon forget Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and in all likelihood, it has not seen the last of him just yet.