Yesterday Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greeted the 15 British sailors and marines kidnapped by Islamic Revolutionary Guards with a smile and gifts before their release from two weeks of captivity. This made-for-television event quickly made the rounds of the cable news channels, broadcasting Ahmadinejad’s smiling face to the world. As he becomes a more recognizable figure to even casual news watchers, what is often glossed over is how little most in the West really know about him. Who is the real Ahmadinejad?
The answers to these questions actually lie within Ahmadinejad’s history, something about which he and the Iran government have been less than forthcoming. According to sources inside Iran, before becoming president, Ahmadinejad served the Iranian regime in several capacities. First, as a militant student leader chosen by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after the revolution, he was a co-founder of Khomeini’s Office for Consolidating Unity (OCU), an organization that stormed universities and jailed students and professors. He next worked as a professional interrogator, responsible for questioning and torturing political prisoners, including U.S. hostages. A member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its inception, Ahmadinejad fought on Iran’s northwestern border during the Iran-Iraq War. At that time, he participated in a special operations mission in Kirkuk, deep inside Iraq. It is now widely acknowledged that Iran is heavily involved in sending roadside bombs, explosives, and arms into Iraq to kill American forces, all with the full backing of Ahmadinejad and the supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad knows exactly what they are capable of in Iraq because he conducted missions there himself. He has also served as a senior commander of an elite section of the IRGC, which later became the Qods Force. In this role he conducted secret operations to assassinate the regime’s enemies in Europe and the Middle East.
The “everyman” perception of Ahmadinejad as a big-city mayor who came from behind to win the presidency is based on a fiction put forward by the regime. In reality, Ahmadinejad was carefully selected for his post based on his military expertise, devotion to the regime’s fundamentalist brand of Islam, and strong ties to the supreme leader.
Years in the OCU and IRGC steeped Ahmadinejad in Khomeini’s monolithic Islam, laying the groundwork for the ideology that underlies his actions today. To be clear, Ahmadinejad’s virulent anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric is the true voice of the Iranian regime. He speaks for the hard-line power elite that has always controlled Iran. The "moderate" voices of past presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani served only to hide Khamenei’s growing animosity toward the West. Khatami and Rafsanjani, despite the perception of being moderates, did not achieve any sort of rapprochement with the West, nor helped modernize the Iranian economy. Nonetheless, policymakers continue to hold out hope that this moderate influence is truly working on the regime. It is a fallacy, and a very dangerous one.
Ahmadinejad’s current mission in his lifelong commitment to the Iranian regime is to smooth the path for the development of a nuclear weapon, and he is succeeding brilliantly. While Tehran escalates its race for a nuclear weapon, Ahmadinejad buys more time by drawing attention away from Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The IAEA’s reports reveal concrete examples of Iran’s stalling tactics, lack of cooperation, and outright lies about its nuclear facilities and programs. The louder Ahmadinejad rants about nuclear power, the closer the regime comes to achieving its real nuclear goals.
So, what does Ahmadinejad’s history and his actions tell us about who he really is? In short, he is a zealot, a man who absorbed Khomeini’s “all or nothing” brand of Islam — an ideology that brooks no dissent and requires its exportation through any means necessary around the globe — as a student, lived its philosophy whole-heartedly over the course of the past three decades, and now works to give its followers the ultimate weapon.
So when Ahmadinejad smiled at the British sailors, his performance for the cameras should not draw the attention of the international community from what its true goal must be: stopping Iran’s drive toward creating a nuclear weapons arsenal, as well as preventing Iranian rulers from turning Iraq into a sister Islamic Republic. While strong resolutions in the Security Council are steps in the right direction, they must be coupled with real efforts in the United States and Europe to support the indigenous Iranian opposition, which is already engaged in efforts to replace the regime with a democratic and secular government.
Experts and policy-makers, including a large bi-partisan group in Congress, increasingly agree that the best way to counter Iran’s threat is to remove this opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran — designated in 1999 as a terrorist group by the State Department as a goodwill gesture to the Iranian clerics — from the terrorist list to expedite change in Iran, before the ayatollahs win the race to get their first nuclear bomb.
Sanctions alone will not stop Ahmadinejad and the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons; only unleashing the discontent of Iranian citizens and its organized opposition against the regime itself can do that. Until the world realizes this, it is not a question of if Ahmadinejad will succeed in his mission but when.