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Ahmadinejad: Media Darling?


Is Ahmadinejad changing his tune as his presidency winds down? That may be the story we’ll be hearing from our media mavens in the coming weeks as Iran’s presidential election shifts into high gear.

Iran’s President is campaigning hard for Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, his spiritual mentor and father-in-law of his son, to succeed him. According to the New York Times, Ahmadinejad is making a push for urban voters by selling himself as a modernizing figure opposed to the hard-line traditionalists favored by the mullahs, and more of a patriot than a religious ideologue:

Despite his early advocacy of Islam’s role in daily affairs, the president is now positioning himself as a champion of citizens’ rights. “He more and more resembles a normal person,” said Hamed, a 28-year-old driver in Tehran who did not want his last name used. “He doesn’t allow them to tell him what to do.”

In speeches, he favors the “nation” and the “people” over the “ummah,” or community of believers, a term preferred by Iran’s clerics, who constantly guard against any revival of pre-Islamic nationalism. He has also said he is ready for talks with the United States, something other Iranian leaders strongly oppose under current circumstances.

Though the Times admits Ahmadinejad has not renounced his Holocaust denial and suspicion of Western democracy, there’s a kind of optimism running through the article—as if by assuming the leadership of “moderate” and “reformist” forces in Iran, Ahmadinejad’s past statements and true beliefs may somehow become irrelevant. Western journalists like a “good guy” in their narratives, and while the Times adequately hedges this time around, one can see the outlines of a “new Ahmadinejad” storyline emerging.

While it’s been clear for a long time that there is tension between Ahmadinejad and the clerics around the Supreme Leader, any Ahmadinejad-as-moderate meme really just reflects the bankruptcy of Western journalistic templates as applied to much of the world. The simplistic idea is that unreasonable radicals want to take things too far and good moderates with whom we can work are the alternative. That doesn’t begin to describe the complexity of what’s happening in Iran, and it very much overstates the case to which either the Supreme Leader or Ahmadinejad is ready to play the parts we would like.

Readers should be on the alert.

[Ahmadinejad photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]

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  • Anthony

    Very true Professor.

    During the Iranian revolution, and the hostage crisis that it produced, the American media constantly referred to khomeini as “the Ayatollah,” as if there were only one Ayatollah – like there is only one Pope. This was quite inaccurate. Here is a list of ayatollah’s on wikipedia.

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