Last August, a little-known mayor of Tehran became president of Iran. Populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (BBC) ran on a platform of returning to the "roots of the revolution," promising reforms and economic improvements for Iran's downtrodden masses. Shortly after taking office, Ahmadinejad echoed the late Ayatollah Khomeini's pronouncements against the United States and Israel, affirming the country's determination to acquire nuclear technologies at whatever cost to its reputation or pocketbook. He played on Iranians' feelings of disenfranchisement and sought to restore the country's greatness (RFE/RL).
One year later, President Ahmadinejad has emerged as one of the world's leading anti-American voices. His rhetoric has inflamed an already tense Middle East and empowered the region's Shiites, as CFR Adjunct Fellow Vali Nasr explains in this CFR.org podcast. Ahmadinejad's push for a uranium-enrichment program has divided the UN Security Council on how to punish Iran without rattling energy markets. And his support for Hezbollah and Hamas has contributed to a conflict that continues to engulf the Levant, leaving hundreds of Lebanese and Israeli innocents dead. To be sure, Ahmadinejad occupies just one of Iran's several poles of power in a country where the supreme authority figure is Ayatollah Khamenei, but he did take the unusual step of writing a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush, ending a quarter century of no official contacts between Tehran and Washington.
At home, Ahmadinejad has pursued policies restricting the activities of independent organizations and media, as this new Backgrounder explains. Iran's human rights record has rapidly deteriorated under his watch, with widespread reports of unlawful arrest, torture, and summary executions of women and children. On August 3, the government banned the leading human rights organization (RFE/RL) of Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, provoking outrage among Iranian activists. Just one week prior, Akbar Mohammadi, a student activist, died in Iran's notorious Evin prison with torture marks on his body.
Despite Ahmadinejad's popular appeals, Iranians' real needs appear to go mostly ignored. The most important issue, according to recent polls (Zogby), is Iran's cash-strapped economy, not its nuclear program. According to a recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iranians largely favor nuclear development but not for military ends for fear it might provoke UN-backed sanctions or, worse, a war with the United States or Israel. Ebadi, writing in the New York Times, says the threat of foreign military intervention has only hindered human rights groups and consolidated the power of Iran's clerical regime. War, writes recently released Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji, "would only contribute to our further enslavement, as the regime would use war as an excuse to suppress any and all voice of opposition" (NYT).