Ahmadinejad had arrived in Yerevan on October 22 for two days of talks with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials on joint energy and transportation projects. But today, the hard-line president suddenly skipped a planned visit to a memorial for the victims of the Ottoman Turkish massacre of Armenians some 90 years ago -- an event that Yerevan wants the world to recognize as genocide.
Armenian officials have said Ahmadinejad told them that he had to leave early due to unexpected developments in Iran. But upon his arrival in Tehran, the president told Iranian journalists that he had stayed even longer than planned.
Senior Armenian officials say Ahmadinejad may have left early because the health of Khamenei, long believed to be poor, had taken a turn for the worse. "There are different suggestions that some problems have arisen inside Iran connected to the health of Khamenei," leading parliamentarian Victor Dalakian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service in Yerevan.
Another Armenian official, speaking to RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity, also cited Khamenei’s "deteriorating health" as a possible reason for Ahmadinejad’s sudden return home.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry insisted earlier this year that the supreme leader is doing fine, despite persisent reports to the contrary.
Reports in Armenia and elsewhere have also speculated that Ahmadinejad's early departure may have been connected to an internal Iranian power struggle tied to the recent resignation of Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, who was seen as close to Khamenei.
He was replaced by Said Jalili, who is reportedly close to Ahmadinejad. Both Jalili and Larijani were in Rome today for nuclear talks with European Union officials.
There's also has been speculation that Ahmadinejad cut short his visit to avoid planting a tree at a memorial to victims of the Ottoman massacre of Armenians -- a move that some believe would have angered Turkey.
The issue made headlines after the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a nonbinding resolution that would recognize the killings as genocide.
"With this step, [Ahmadinejad] showed that Turkey, and relations with Turkey, are more important for Iran than Armenian sensitivities," Rasim Musabekov, a Baku-based political analyst, told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. "It's a rational move, and he's done it in a smart way."
But other have noted that Turkish-Iranian ties suffered no obvious damage in September 2004, after then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami laid flowers at the same memorial in Yerevan.
And on his trip, Ahmadinejad commented directly on the massacre, saying on October 22 that he was "against the brutality" waged on Armenians during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
He also said that Iranian Armenians, who constitute one of Iran’s main ethnic groups, are free every year to commemorate the mass killings on April 24. He did not use the word genocide, but ethnic Armenians in Iran have a monument in Tehran which commemorates the tragedy as genocide.
President Ahmadinejad in parliament (ISNA photo)
Mohammad Maleki, the first head of Tehran University following the Islamic revolution, says he doesn't believe the students' criticism of the government constitutes a revolution.
"What is going on right now is that because [the government] cannot tolerate the students' criticism, they try to prevent it by shutting down universities and by threatening professors and students," Maleki says. "What they are currently doing is in my opinion, and in the opinion of many professors, aimed at creating an atmosphere of fear and terror among professors and students to stop them from openly criticizing the government."
Ali Niku Nesbati, a member of the Office to Foster Unity, Iran's largest pro-reform student group, says that during Ahmadinejad's presidency, the disciplinary committee has issued warnings to 523 students for political activism. He adds that over the past year alone, more than 1,700 students have been "marked with stars" and subsequently encountered difficulties when applying for graduate degrees. (Ahmadinejad's government has reportedly adopted a "star rating" system for student activists and gives regime critics between one and three stars, depending on the perceived threat they pose.)
Nesbati says what is noteworthy is that "as the government is faced with more problems and is unable to resolve them, we are encountering more repression."
"As we have witnessed over the past few months, more pressures have been exerted on women, workers, and teachers," Nesbati says. "The same obviously applies to students."
(Nesbati was imprisoned on July 9, 2007. He made the above statements before his imprisonment.)
Abbas Marufi, an Iranian writer and publisher based in Berlin, says never in Iran's history has the book market faced tougher circumstances than today.
"The government has laid the foundations for the destruction of good and professional publishing in Iran," he says, adding that the government has created a situation that is exploited by "pseudo-publishers" -- as he describes them -- who are in the business solely to profit by publishing books for which they can get subsidies.
Marufi says that over the past two years, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has even started to revoke publishing rights issued by previous governments.
Ebrahim Nabavi, a journalist and satirist, says the book-publishing sector today faces circumstances similar to those 10 years ago. According to Nabavi, it has become very difficult to get accreditation for new publications or to renew old licences.
But Sadegh Samii, director of publishing house Ketabsara, says many government critics are simply ignorant of the rules and regulations of publishing in Iran.
"We Iranians are in the habit of blaming others for our own failures," says Sadegh Samii, director of the publication "Ketabsara." "So if at any point in time, I'm unable to select a good book and find a qualified translator, I put the blame on the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But this is unjustified."
Samii says over the past 27 or 28 years, the ministry's regulations have not changed at all. But he admits that the regulations have been applied more or less strictly during different periods.
Siamak Taheri, a newspaper journalist based in Iran, says Ahmadinejad was elected two years ago on the promise that he would bring social equality to the country. At the time, many Iranians were dissatisfied with their country's economic situation and had lost faith in the reformists' ability to improve it, so they pinned their hopes on Ahmadinejad.
"But the economic situation has worsened under Ahmadinejad and unemployment and corruption have increased." Taheri blames the situation on the makeup of the government.
Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, says she has not seen the government "take any positive action in the fight against high prices and in the struggle for prosperity, which is an important human right." Ebadi says this has prompted workers and teachers to hold strikes, which unfortunately have led to arrests and interrogations.
Nahid Kheirabi, a journalist and women activist based in Iran, says one of the "reactionary viewpoints of the 9th republic has been the renewed discourse on the legitimacy of temporary marriage," which according to Kheirabi constitutes "an insult and a threat to humanity, to both men and women." But Kheirabi says society's negative reaction to the concept of temporay marriage has forced Ahmadinejad's people to retreat on this issue.