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Reading Ahmadinejad via Wikileaks: A Freedom Lover or a Two-Bit Dictator?

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In a recent article for the Atlantic, Middle East expert Reza Aslan writes that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not be the hard-line president outside observers actually thinks he is. Based on unverified WikiLeaks documents and remarks by the president himself, the author concludes that Ahmadinejad is, in fact, in favor of greater social and political freedoms and the "Persianization" of Iranian society, but is isolated among others in Iran's current ruling establishment:

[Ahmadinejad]... is actually a reformer whose attempts to liberalize, secularize, and even "Persianize" Iran have been repeatedly stymied by the country's more conservative factions... But if you oppose the Mullahs' rule, yearn for greater social and political freedoms for the Iranian people, and envision an Iran that draws inspiration from the glories of its Persian past, then, believe it or not, you have more in common with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than you might have thought."

Here is why Aslan's characterization of Ahmadinejad is flawed:

Ahmadinejad is the kind of man who should not be judged by his words, but by his actions. As somebody who has met him on several occasions, once when he was Tehran's mayor and twice when I was reporting on his trips to the UN in New York over the past few years, I can say I've never seen a more insincere, manipulative and deceptive personality in my entire life.
One doesn't need WikiLeaks to know what Ahmadinejad has said about freedom. He has claimed openly that Iran is a free country where people have the right to express their opinions. He has also said that there are no gays in Iran. But his actions and Iran's grim reality tell a different story.

Right after the 2009 election, dozens of prominent politicians, journalists, human rights lawyers and students were arrested, tortured, and put on trial. Some have said publicly that their arrest orders were signed several days prior to the election, illustrating the pre-planned nature of the arrests.

The post-election crackdown resulted in the killing of dozens of protesters and the arrests of more than 5,000 Iranian citizens. During the same period of time discussed by Aslan, Ahmadinejad's intelligence forces managed the most notorious levels of mistreatment and abuse of political prisoners inside prisons.

Over the past months, a number of political prisoners have been executed based on fabricated files provided by Ahmadinejad's Ministry of Intelligence.

Aslan's reference to a WikiLeaks document that claims Ahmadinejad asked for more freedom for the Iranian people at a cabinet meeting in the midst of the post-election uprising, and that in response "the Revolutionary Guard's Chief of Staff, Mohammed Ali Jafari, slapped Ahmadinejad across the face right in the middle of the meeting... " is entirely a myth. No credible source has ever confirmed such an incident.

To speak about freedom for Iranians at a time when, under his command, the Iranian police, escorted the Basij paramilitary forces to brutally attack a dormitory at Tehran University, destroying the building, and injuring dozens of students, is duplicitous. The video of the attack, leaked by someone from within the intelligence community a few months later, leaves no doubt about the direct role of the police and Ahmadinejad's allies in the brutal treatment of Iranian students. Several of those students would be dead the next day.

In fact, if it were not for the support of the Revolutionary Guards, Iran's intelligence, and the paramilitary Basiji forces, it would have been impossible for Ahmadinejad to secure his second term in office, particularly after a massive uprising by the Iranian people.

Ahmdinejad appoints the Ministers of Interior, Intelligence, Culture and Telecommunications, and Ahmadinejad's Minister of Interior assigns the police chief. Even 18 months after the election, arrests of political activists continue, mistreatment inside prisons continues, and the government's opposition cannot hold any gatherings anywhere.

Ahmadinejad has full control over the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Telecommunications. The Ministry of Culture has actively restricted independent media and has raised the level of censorship to the point that criticizing the president's policies by journalists is either impossible or has severe consequences for them. The Ministry of Telecommunications has also established the most advanced filtering systems in the world, coupled with allowing the Ministry of Intelligence to track and trap activists and students who are criticizing the government online.

Ahmadinejad's readiness to make concessions on Iran's nuclear program, according to Reza Aslan's reading of WikiLeaks, is another myth that does not fit the reality on the ground. Like his remarks on freedom and human rights in Iran, his public remarks on Iran's nuclear program, are aimed to mislead the international community. The reality is that Ahmadinejad has made the nuclear issue in Iran a matter of national pride. And no one can seriously criticize the government's position on this matter. He has mocked U.N. resolutions against Iran and has been publicly defiant regarding Iran's nuclear program. It's not surprising because the Iranian leadership has yet to come to a conclusion that concession with the West is necessary or serve the regime's interests.

As a matter of principle, Iran's supreme leader, and those who have managed Iran's nuclear dossier, believe once they get to an irreversible point, meaning to the point where they acquire full fuel cycle, Western countries will be forced to accept a nuclear Iran, even if ultimately Iranians accept severe inspections. In fact, there has been no serious conversation on giving up uranium enrichment in Iran, or any kind of agreement that the West might appreciate. So Ahmadinejad's lip service doesn't really mean anything in Iran's strategic nuclear policy, as we see that the negotiations go nowhere over and over again.

Furthermore, in dealing with Iran's nuclear program, Ahmadinejad is just a messenger, and a manipulative one. Neither Amadinejad nor Iran's Parliament have control over Iran's nuclear program -- it is Iran's supreme leader and a number of his advisers who draw the lines for the president and Iran's negotiating team on the nuclear issue. So arguing that Ahmadinejad is a man of concession and the others, hard-liners, are in favor of confrontation and defiance is a misreading of Iranian politics.

WikiLeaks documents are memos written by U.S. diplomats based on their daily observations, their conversations with sources, media publications and even rumors they hear. It also reflects what American diplomats might have sensed, guessed or understood from a particular incident, trend and individual in a country. It's hard to estimate how much of such information is factual and, more importantly, in which context these memos have been written and discussed.

We should not forget that the United States doesn't have an embassy in Tehran and American diplomats have very little access to the major players in Iran. This makes an accurate reading of the events much more difficult.

Ahmadinejad's remarks compared to his actual actions on Iran's nuclear program and human rights indicate that he is not a man of his word. Many Iranians know him to be a pathological liar who says anything at anytime to manipulate his audience. What Aslan has pointed out is that Ahmadinejad's dictatorial ambitions may in fact go beyond the Islamic establishment, and there should be no mistake about his ruthlessness and his ability to use violence to secure power at any cost.