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Mahmud Ahmadinejad's Legacy

  • Charles Recknagel

Two women cover their faces with images of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. (file photo)

Two women cover their faces with images of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. (file photo)

As Iran's outgoing President Mahmud Ahmadinejad prepared to step down this weekend, there were few signs he would be remembered favorably either internationally or domestically.

Instead, his legacy may be that of a leader with an unusually contentious personality who did little to solve Iran's problems during eight years in office and, sometimes, directly helped exacerbate them.

In the Western world, Ahmadinejad will be widely remembered for his insulting speaking style when it came to Iran's enemies, particularly Israel.

Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London, notes that Ahmadinejad considers this to be among his greatest public achievements.

"If you ask Ahmadinejad himself what would his legacy be, what was his greatest achievement, he was asked that question a week before his departure and his answer was interesting," Joshi says. "He said he would be remembered, above all, for successfully denying the Holocaust."

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But Joshi says that if Ahmadinejad was famously combative on the world stage, choosing to deliver his own version of history rather than reconcile differences, he was often no less confrontational at home.

"That tone of hectoring, belligerence, divisiveness, it was both on the international stage and on the domestic stage," Joshi says. "We saw numerous incidents where Ahmadinejad was petty, sulky, and surly in his dealings, the way he confronted Iran's parliament so often, the way he confronted the supreme leader himself."

'We'll Pay For It'

Many of Ahmadinejad's confrontations with parliament were over economic policy. Elected in 2005, he ran as a populist who promised to distribute the country's oil wealth to the common man. But his predilection for redistributing wealth by providing handouts to the poor rather than improving Iran's economy and creating jobs was widely criticized.

"He used oil revenues, he did give it to the poor, but he just gave small cash payments," says Hossein Askari, the Iran professor of international business and international affairs at George Washington University. "He went to villages and when people said, 'We need this, we need that.' He said, 'We'll pay for it.' And, of course, the government was acting in an ad hoc fashion, funding things that were maybe good or bad but to gain him political support."

Askari says that Ahmadinejad also showed little understanding of economic theory as he used his position to override the authority of better-trained advisers.

"Mr. Ahmadinejad got rid of one of his central bankers when inflation was running high and [Ahmadinejad] wanted him to pump more money into the economy but then to reduce interest rates," Askari says. "Now you can't do [that], you know, because you are doing two polar things. I mean, if I pump more and more money into the economy, I am going to fuel inflation; and if I fuel inflation, then nominal interest rates have to rise."

Supremely Dangerous?

Over time, Ahmadinejad's propensity for building his own populist power base aroused suspicions within Iran's clerical establishment that he could become a dangerous rival. Relations between Ahmadinejad's camp and the circle around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei deteriorated steadily, even as Khamenei backed Ahmadinejad for reelection in 2009.

It was what happened after Ahmadinejad's second-term victory that provided some of the most troubling images for which he will be remembered. As the reformist-led Green Movement brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets claiming the vote was rigged, Iran's establishment struck back violently by beating, jailing, and torturing protesters and putting key leaders under house arrest.

The violence did not just further damage the Islamic republic's image at a time when the international community and Iran were already in crisis over Tehran's controversial nuclear program. The revulsion it caused -- in and out of Iran -- guaranteed Ahmadinejad would be vilified when Iran elected its new president, Hassan Rohani, in June.

During the campaign, Rohani, an establishment insider also supported by reformists, repeatedly accused Ahmadinejad of extremism. The charge seemed intended to simultaneously rescue the establishment's image by saddling Ahmadinejad with the blame for the postelection crackdown and to signal that the new president would try to reduce some of the tensions from Iran's domestic and international crises.

The label of "extremism" -- applied to Ahmadinejad by his own erstwhile allies -- now looks likely to stick alongside his international reputation as prejudiced and overbearing. As the outgoing president moves back to private life, it increasingly appears his legacy will be of style over substance, and of a losing style at that.