Jerusalem -- Educated in England and now a specialist in Iranian affairs living in Israel, Iranian-born Meir Javedanfar is the co-author of a new book about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical president of Iran.
The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran, which Javedanfar wrote with Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, is one of the first books to explore the president's early life, his political and personal influences and his nuclear ambitions.
As an Iranian-born Jew, Javedanfar is irked by the 50-year-old president's threats to 'wipe Israel off the map" and finds his repeated denials of the Holocaust are disturbing. "We know ordinary Iranians arre not like this, so it's really painful," says Javedanfar.
Now, as American diplomats attempt to engage Ahmadinejad's administration in the first bilateral talks between the two countries in more than three decades, questions about his personal history and geopolitical intentions are becoming increasingly relevant.
Here is some of what Javedanfar had to say about Ahmadinejad in a recent interview:
What kind of a person is Ahmadinejad, and who were the people and what were the events that shaped his life?
The biggest influence on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's life was his father, Ahmad Ahmadinejad, who was a Koran teacher (later worked as an ironmonger). His father is a source of his anti-American feelings. His wife is another influence. She is an engineer and an Islamic feminist who believes in increasing the place of women in Iranian politics and society. During his tenure as mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad opened many sports centers and libraries especially for women. As president, Ahmadinejad was the first president to call for women to be allowed to go to football matches. [His efforts failed, however.] He has three kids: one daughter and two sons. Every single person in that house is an engineer or studying to become one. How do you explain his rise from relative obscurity to win the elections for president of Iran in 2005?
In Iran the government chooses the candidates, but the people are free to vote. Ayatollah [Seyyed Ali] Khamenei [Iran's supreme leader] helped him. There was rigging and voter fraud for Ahmadinejad, which was decisive in his victory. But Ahmadinejad was the least corrupt candidate, on the surface at least, and this also helped him. His simple image: always dressing down, his trademark was his cheap white polyester jacket, and his old 1977 white Peugeot, which has no air conditioner. Also, compared to his election rival Ayatollah [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad is much more personable when it comes to talking to the poor. He has openly attacked the problem of corruption inside Iran. Ahmadinejad's pronouncements that Israel should be "wiped off the map" and that the Holocaust was a "myth" drew widespread condemnation from the West. What are his motivations behind these statements?
Ahmadinejad wants to show he is a straight-talking guy who is not afraid to say what he thinks. He wants to come across as the Islamic version of John Wayne. Someone who shoots from the hip, so the West and Israel better get out of the way. He thinks this plays well with the Iranian poor, who are the people who backed him in the election. He also believes that in many Arab countries the people want Israel eliminated. By saying that he wants to become popular among all these people and he's hoping these people will pressure their governments to change their attitudes toward Israel and ultimately toward Iran's nuclear program. Do his statements reflect the beliefs of ordinary Iranians?
The majority of Iranians are not happy about what's happening between Palestinians and Israelis. In Iran, it's almost always the tradition to back the David against the Goliath and in this case Israel seems like the Goliath and Palestine seems like the David. Nevertheless, they don't want Israel wiped off the face of the Earth because they have nothing to gain from it. ... They are sick of wars and conflict. When it comes to elimination, the only things they do want to see erased are unemployment, poverty and injustice in their own country. Why is Ahmadinejad so interested in having a nuclear program?
Ahmadinejad made many promises before the election. He said he would cut off the hand of corruption and improve the economic status of the poor. He failed on both accounts, with little hope for improvement in the future. Therefore, he needed another cause to boost his image, and the nuclear program gave him that cause. That's the biggest reason. Another reason Ahmadinejad wants a nuclear program is because many Iranians believe it is their right. During the time of the shah the Americans assisted the shah's nuclear program. They even gave him a research reactor. But after the revolution, just because Iran was a different regime all of a sudden Iran wasn't allowed to have this. To many Iranians this smacks of hypocrisy because the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] rules are supposedly made on technical, not political grounds. Many Iranians do believe that the West doesn't want Iran to advance scientifically. Also, the fact that Iraq used chemical weapons in its war against Iran and the international community did nothing to stop it reinforced the belief of many Iranians that only a nuclear bomb [can deter a future] Weapons of Mass Destruction-style attack against their country. Riots broke out in Iran last month after the Iranian government announced that fuel would be rationed, reflecting the growing economic crisis in the country as it faces increasing isolation by the West because of its nuclear program. Are Iranians willing to sacrifice their economy in order to have a nuclear program?
I would say no. ... Iranians want a nuclear program but they don't want to bet the whole farm on it. They don't want to become a North Korea. They don't want to starve over it. They don't want to become the bad people of the planet and be looked upon as the evil empire. They want to do it the Persian way. Iranians are some of the best business people in the entire world and how do we do this? We do it through consensus. We are fantastic negotiators. We give and we get. Ahmadinejad is just [pursuing] his own fight like a bully, and he expects everyone to come to Iran's side. That's damaging Iran. Rather than accepting Iran's legal right to nuclear technology, the international community is looking upon Iran as an enemy who cannot be trusted. If free and fair elections were held, he would lose, and there is every chance that Ahmadinejad could lose in 2009. What is the best way for the West to stop Iran's nuclear program?
For now, unfortunately, sanctions are the most effective way, because the Tehran administration is not interested in making any compromises. ... My worry is that the world has woken up too late. If you asked me this question in the middle of the '90s, the chances of stopping a nuclear Iran would be higher, but now the odds are stacked against us. Is there still an opportunity for a diplomatic solution to the conflict over Iran and the nuclear program?
I think there is still a chance. However , I don't think we will ever be able to completely dismantle Iran's nuclear program. What we'll have to go for is a freeze on enrichment for 25 years or something like that. But I don't think we're going to see a similar case of Libya or South Africa where they just handed everything back. The West is going to have to accept some kind of nuclear infrastructure in Iran, perhaps with more observations from the international community. ... The Iranian government is responsible for a majority of the current problems, but the West has also made numerous mistakes which have reinforced the conservative belief in Iran that if you want anything done for Iran's nuclear program, it has to be done internally, away from any Western influence. Is there a military solution to the West's nuclear conflict with Iran?
There is a chance it might succeed, but if we don't give diplomacy and sanctions a chance and we just go in for an attack, then it could motivate the regime even more to get its hands on a nuclear bomb. It could also rally the Iranian people around the flag. Can the world live with a nuclear Iran?
I think it would be very difficult. Don't forget, if Iran becomes nuClear, it would be OPEC's first nuclear member. That would give Iran more leverage in negotiations. Iran will use it to push up the price of oil in order to earn money and punish the West. Also, I think the [Middle East] would be much more insecure. Just look at what Pakistan is doing to the U.S. It was Pakistan's support for the Taliban which enabled al Qaeda to carryout the Sept. 11 attacks, and not Iraq. Yet Iraq got invaded, and not Pakistan. Why? Because Pakistan has a nuclear bomb. If the current administration in Tehran gets its hand on a nuclear bomb, it will use it as an insurance scheme to increase its support for militant movements in the Middle East, with little fear of retaliation. This will make this region dangerously unstable, and is a scenario which should greatly worry the West and the international community, because what happens in this region has implications throughout the world, as we saw in the recent Iraq war.
If we fail, would the regime use its nuclear bombs in a first strike against anyone it views as hostile? I think the probability for this scenario is quite low. The Iranian regime, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, the man in charge of Iran's nuclear program, is interested in continuation and in domination, and not its own elimination."
John Murphy is The Sun's Jerusalem bureau chief.