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The President’s Challenge

What is Ahmadinejad looking for in his repeated anti-Semitic provocations? Does Iran's Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, subscribe to this escalation that scandalizes the international community? As always in Iran, given the extreme opacity of the system, the question elicits various different hypotheses, each of which contain a share of the truth.

According to Bruno Tertrais, the Iranian president's first objective is to distract the Iranian population's attention away from domestic issues; to maintain it in a state of conflict, to court its nationalism so that it buttresses an increasingly unpopular regime. He also does it to make the population forget the economic doldrums and unemployment that obtain in Iran, now that supposedly populist measures, such as the payments given to young married couples, no longer appease Iranians' resentment. Ahmadinejad is also trying to increase his own prestige and popularity in Sunni countries, now that these are on the decline domestically, as the results of the municipal elections have just demonstrated.

Finally, in a country where power is atomized among several institutions, also at issue is the need to eclipse his rivals, such as the ex-president of the republic Ayatollah Rafsanjani - the great victor in the recent municipal elections - whom Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei sometimes appears to prefer to President Ahmadinejad. At the Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry, they are proud of this aggressive rhetoric with respect to Israel: First of all, because they can hardly believe in any military sanction from the Americans, bogged down as they are in the Iraqi quagmire; then, because senior ministry officials consider the media uproar provoked by the conference as an additional demonstration of Iran's power in the world.

Another explanation advanced for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's attitude: his totalitarian mysticism could be linked to his obsession for the Mahdi, the hidden imam - central to Shi'ite piety - who will return to save the world at the end of days. Farhad Khosrokhavar, a researcher at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences sociales [School for Advanced Social Sciences Studies] recalls that when Ahmadinejad was mayor of Tehran in 2004, he prodded the City Council to build a great avenue as preparation for the Mahdi's advent. One year later, as president, he devoted $17 million to the erection of a blue mosaic mosque in Jamkaran. The Mahdi is supposed to appear in the well of this mosque on his return. "This type of mentality makes you very strong," explains Amir Mohebian, a political journalist from the daily paper Resalat . "If I believe the Mahdi is going to arrive three or four years from now, why would I be cautious? On the contrary, it's the time to show oneself as strong, pure, and hard."

Yet, paradoxically, Iran is perhaps the least anti-Semitic country in the Middle East. In any case, it's the country that, after Israel, shelters the largest Jewish community: 20,000 to 24,000 people. Close to 10,000 Jews live in Tehran, where the Talmudic schools accommodate 2,000 students, while the Jewish Association manages hospitals and owns several buildings. To hear them tell it, Tehran's Jews are no worse off than other Iranians, and certainly not worse-off than members of other minorities - notably the Kurds, who are the regime's bête noire. On the evenings of religious holidays, the great synagogue of Yossefabad, guarded by a single policeman, is full to bursting.

Certain professions are forbidden to Jews, who are at the mercy of accusations of espionage like the one that targeted thirteen inhabitants of Shiraz in April 2000. But the Jewish deputy to the Iranian Parliament, Maurice Motamed, has met Ahmadinejad on several occasions. The president promised him he would allocate the subsidy intended for minorities to his community! In Tehran's bazaar, many Jews attend to their businesses, visibly well-integrated, while their Muslim partners speak out against the "Arabs," who, in Iran, are often considered responsible for all evils.

Of course, like all uncommon groups, the Jews are at the mercy of the mullahs, who may, according to the issue, offer the Jews' status as an example to foreigners or strike out at them toughly. In spite of this risk, many Iranian Jews - patriotic and attached to their country - are reluctant to leave for Israel, where the situation seems just as uncertain to them as that in Iran.

Translation: Leslie Thatcher .

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.

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