Ahmadinejad and Bush: Separated at Birth?

Despite the growing likelihood of confrontation between their two countries, U.S. President George W. Bush and Iranian President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad share a number of remarkable similarities.

Juan Cole, a prominent blogger and Middle East historian at the University of Michigan, noted last week that the two men’s campaign tactics suggest that they are "soul mates," particularly in their populist appeal, their criticism of a government of which they are a part, and their reliance on right-wing religious forces for their electoral success.

But even in terms of personal history, their lack of interest or concern about the outside world, and their Manichaean outlooks in which friends and enemies and good and evil are clearly delineated, the two men share a great deal in common.

Of course, there are key differences as well. Unlike Bush, who was born into great wealth and prominence, Ahmadinejad’s origins were quite modest; his father was a blacksmith.

Similarly, Bush enjoys far greater power than the Iranian president-elect, who will have to cope with the far greater influence, particularly in foreign relations, exercised by the supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, who, however, has warmly welcomed Ahmadinejad’s victory, notably as a direct rebuff to Bush himself.

Indeed, a number of analysts have noted that in his last-minute denunciation of the election and implied endorsement of a student-led boycott, Bush probably boosted both total turnout in the election’s first round (about 63 percent of eligible voters, according to official accounts) and the performance of hardline forces led by Ahmadinejad

Tehran’s conservative intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, publicly thanked Bush for his remarks, which were repeatedly broadcast by state television during election day. Bush’s statement against the elections was even used by Ahmadinejad to denounce his rival in the run-off, former President Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had said Tehran should explore a dialogue with Washington.

"You only have to look at [Bush’s] comments" to understand that he "seeks hostility" against Iran, Ahmadinejad told reporters in precisely the kind of statement designed to foreclose the possibility of dialogue that one would expect from hardliners in the Bush administration regarding Iran, North Korea, or prewar Iraq.

Cole identified several similarities in the political tactics of both Bush and Ahmadinejad. Like Bush, Ahmadinejad never personally attacked his political rivals, but at the same time did little to discourage his supporters from spreading lies and using other smear tactics against his foes during the election campaign.

Both men campaigned successfully as champions of the "common people" even though they were supported by extremely wealthy interests – in Ahmadinejad’s case, according to Cole, by "billionaire clerical hardliners who have done little for ordinary folks"; in Bush’s by "the white-tie corporate crowd."

Similarly, both men attacked their own governing establishments even though they had served as integral parts of them. As a right-winger and loyalist to Khamenei, Ahmadinejad complained about state corruption, and "his anti-government rhetoric struck a chord with many Iranians and helped him get elected," according to Cole. Similarly, Bush constantly "represents himself as an outsider to Washington and a critic of the government."

Finally, Ahmadinejad benefited from the support of mosque preachers all over the country as well as by members of a religious militia, the Basij, which also has a national network of grassroots volunteers who turned out the vote, particularly in rural and poorer provinces. Similarly, "Bush depends heavily on the support of evangelical and fundamentalist churches" who have become "foot soldiers for the Republican Party."

Another Iran specialist, Columbia University professor Gary Sick, agreed that comparing the two men may be useful "not because [they] or their nations are particularly alike, but rather to explain what is going on politically and what it may mean."

Like Cole, Sick, who served as the top Iran expert to former President Jimmy Carter, stressed the importance of a "large constituency composed of people who place special value on religious and traditional values" in the two men’s political success. Both also appeared to benefit from the support of much of the military establishment.

Like Bush, Ahmadinejad "wears his religion on his sleeve," according to Sick, who also noted that the president-elect apparently has never traveled outside his own country and has no personal foreign-policy experience, just as Bush had none before his 2000 election. Bush’s first public post, of course, was governor of Texas; Ahmadinejad served most recently as mayor of Tehran.

Despite their religious piety and appeal to traditional values, both men see themselves as problem-solvers and managers. While Bush has a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University and tries to run his administration on a corporate model, Ahmadinejad has a doctorate in engineering from one of Iran’s elite schools and is given high marks, even by his critics, for his management of the mayor’s office.

Their nationalism and somewhat contemptuous dismissal of the concerns of other nations also bear similarities. Just as Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol to curb global warming because "we will not do anything that harms our economy [and] because first things first are the people who live in America; that’s my priority," so Ahmadinejad during the campaign suggested that Iran would not compromise on issues of national interest except on its own terms.

Speaking of Western demands that Iran curb its nuclear program, he said, "We will discuss in a rational way and if they accept our legitimate right [to enrich uranium], we will cooperate. Otherwise, nothing will force the Iranians to comply with their demands."

Both clearly believe that nothing good can come from the other. Bush made that clear in his pre-election statements, not to mention his designation of Iran as a charter member of the "Axis of Evil."

"Iran is ruled by men who suppress liberty at home and spread terror across the world," Bush said on the eve of the first round of this month’s elections. "Power is in the hands of an unelected few who have retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy."

"The U.S. administration cut off ties unilaterally to lay waste to the Islamic Republic," said Ahmadinejad during the campaign. "They want to restore them today for the same reason."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.