Order Code RS22569
Updated July 9, 2008
Iran: Profile of President
Hussein D. Hassan
Information Research Specialist
Knowledge Services Group
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was elected June 24, 2005, to a four-year
term, becoming the first non-cleric president in 24 years. He defeated former president
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in a run-off. Prior to his 2005 election to the presidency,
Ahmadinejad did not hold an elected office and was a virtual unknown in the
international arena. This report covers his background; his victory over the well-known
former president Rafsanjani; his remarks about the West, including Israel; and recent
visits to Iraq and Latin America. For further information and analysis on Ahmadinejad,
Iran, and U.S. options, see CRS Report RL32048, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy
Responses, by Kenneth Katzman. This report will be updated as warranted.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pronounced mah-MOOD ah-mah-dihnee-ZHAHD) was born in 1956 in the village of Aradan near the city of Garmsar,
southeast of Tehran. The fourth son of seven children of an ironworker, he and his family
moved to Tehran for better economic opportunity. Their move to Tehran coincided with
the change of his family name. His family’s original name was Saborjhian.1 The family
name change provides an insight into the devoutly Islamic working-class roots of Mr.
Ahmadinejad’s brand of populist politics. His solidarity with the most downtrodden is
also believed to have been influenced by his father, Ahmad, who, after running a grocery
store and then a barber shop in Aradan, became a blacksmith in Tehran.
The name Saborjhian derives from thread painter — Sabor in Farsi — a once common and
humble occupation in the carpet industry in Semnan province, where Aradan is situated. Ahmad
by contrast is a name also used for prophet Muhammad and means virtuous; Nejad means race
in Farsi, so Ahmadinejad can mean Muhammad’s race or virtuous race. Robert Tait, “Humbling
Beginning that Shaped Iran’s New Hard Man: Ahmadinejad has Tasted the Poverty He Wants
to Eradicate,” The Guardian (Manchester, UK), July 2, 2005, p. 15.
Ahmadinejad holds a Ph.D. in traffic and transport engineering from Tehran
University of Science and Technology.2 He joined the revolutionary guards in 1986 after
volunteering to serve in the war with Iraq. Reportedly, his Islamic credentials are said to
be beyond challenge.3 He was co-founder of the Islamic Society of Students and has been
an instructor for the Basij, the youth volunteer organization that enforces the Islamic
Republic’s strict religious mores. In the 1980s, he reportedly served as the governor of
Maku and Khoy cities in the northwestern West Azerbaijan province for four years. He
became an advisor to the governor general of the western province of Kurdestan for two
years.4 In 1993, he was appointed as a governor general of the newly created
northwestern province of Ardebil.
In May 2003, the Tehran City Council (TCC), which was dominated by
conservatives when reformist voters did not turn out in large numbers in 2003 municipal
elections, appointed Ahmadinejad mayor of Tehran, Iran’s capital city of 12 million
people. As mayor, he sought to improve local services, repair roads, and upgrade a
chaotic traffic system. A former military figure, he also promised to step up efforts to
counter western “decadence” to build a powerful modern Islamic Iran.5
Election and Its Aftermath
Prior to his 2005 election to the presidency, Ahmadinejad never held an elected
office and was virtually unknown in the international arena. Nevertheless, in a campaign
promising anti-corruption, more economic support to the poor, and maintaining the
principles of the revolution espoused by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
Ahmadinejad won the presidency in a run-off against former president Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani on June 24, 2005. Ahmadinejad then became the first non-cleric president of
Iran in 24 years.
Ahmadinejad’s rise to power and landslide victory surprised the international
community, including many Iranian specialists who anticipated a Rafsanjani victory.
Approximately 22 million people voted in the run-off poll, which had a turnout of 60%.
He received around 62% of the vote, nearly twice that of his rival, Rafsanjani, who
received 35.9% of the vote.6
Under the Iranian constitution, the president is elected for a four-year term by direct
vote of the people and his re-election for a successive term is permissible only once. For
Military Section: Profile on Mahamoud Ahmadinejad at GlobalSecurity.org at
[http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/ahmadinejad.htm], accessed on June 12, 2008.
Robert Tait, “Pious populist ... presidential?,” The Guardian (Manchester, UK), June 25, 2005.
Military Section: Profile on Mahamoud Ahmadinejad, at GlobalSecurity.org at
Amin Saikal, “A Hard-liner, for a Change Iran’s President-elect,” International Herald Tribune,
June 28, 2005.
BBC News, “Iran Loser Blasts ‘Illegal’ Poll, Defeated Iranian Presidential Candidate Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani has Reacted Angrily to His Surprise Loss to Hardline Opponent Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad,” June 25, 2005, at [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1hi/world/middle_east/4622955.stm].
instance, Ayatollah Khameni, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Mohammad Khatami were all
elected for two consecutive terms.
Denial of the Holocaust
Since taking office in August 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made a
series of remarks about Israel, Jews, and the Holocaust. On October 26, 2005, speaking
to a student conference in Tehran in a speech entitled, “World without Zionism,” he said,
“Some European countries insist on saying that during World War II, Hitler burned
millions of Jews and put them in concentration camps. Any historian, commentator
or scientist who doubts that is taken to prison or gets condemned ... Let’s assume what
the Europeans say is true ... Let’s give some land to the Zionists in Europe or in
Germany or Austria. They faced injustice in Europe, so why do the repercussions fall
on the Palestinians?” Most Jews in Israel “have no roots in Palestine, but they are
holding the destiny of Palestine in their hands and allow themselves to kill the
On December 8, 2006, Ahmadinejad reportedly said that “Today, they have created
a myth in the name of Holocaust and consider it to be above God, religion and the
prophets ... If you (Europeans) committed this big crime, then why should the oppressed
Palestinian nation pay the price? You have to pay the compensation yourself. This is our
proposal: give a part of your own land in Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska to
them so that the Jews can establish their country.”8 Furthermore, at his urging, on
December 11, 2006, the Institute for Political and International Studies, an arm of the
Foreign Ministry, held a two-day conference entitled, “Review of the Holocaust: Global
Vision.” He addressed the conference as did other Holocaust deniers, such as former Ku
Klux Klan leader David Duke and French professor Robert Faurisson; Nazi sympathizers;
and anti-Zionists such as British Rabbi Ahron Cohen.
Trips to Latin America
On January 13, 2007, Ahmedinejad arrived in Caracas, Venezuela, to begin his Latin
American tour. Reportedly, his intent of the four-day visit to the region was to seek and
cultivate stronger political and economic ties to his Latin American allies. While in
Caracas, he met his counterpart, President Hugo Chavez, whom Ahmadinejad called a
“brother” during his first visit to Venezuela, in September 2006.9
For his part, President Chavez has become a leading defender of Iran’s nuclear
ambitions, charging the United States with using the issue as a cover to attack a regime
it opposes and promised to stand with Iran. The two countries also signed a commercial
agreement that sees the two countries developing an international oil company.
Associated Press, “Ahmadinejad’s Recent Comments on Israel and the Holocaust,” December
Agence France Presse, “Iran President Tours Latin America Bolstering Anti-US Ties,” January
Ahmadinejad also met the newly elected Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega. The
two countries signed a development agreement largely targeting Nicaragua’s economic
and infrastructure problems. It called for the construction of dams and homes, and
factories building items from buses to bicycles. They also agreed to establish programs
to improve drinking water, ports, and the fishing industry. On January 15, 2007,
Ahmadinejad attended the inauguration ceremony of Ecuador’s new president, Rafael
Correa, and met with Bolivian leader Evo Morales. All are vocal critics of President
In response to U.N. sanctions in 2006 and 2007, Ahmedinejad, on April 18, 2007,
stated that Iran’s army was self-sufficient and would not be weakened by the sanctions.11
He also described the countries that drew up the sanctions as “bullying powers.” The
sanctions were imposed by the U.N. Security Council after Iran refused to halt uranium
enrichment in order to appease Western concerns about its nuclear program.12
Canceled U.N. Trip
On March 23, 2007, the Voice of America (VOA) reported that Ahmadinejad had
called off his trip to New York to attend a critical U.N. Security Council meeting. Iranian
officials said the trip was canceled because the United States issued visas too late.
However, State Department officials said all 75 visas for Ahmadinejad, his security detail,
flight crew, and other officials were approved and handed over to Iranian representatives
in Switzerland on March 23, 2007.13 Even though some of the applications for the visas
were incomplete, all visas for the delegation were reportedly approved.
Release of the British Sailors
On March 23, 2007, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) captured
15 British sailors and marines who were inspecting ships in the Persian Gulf. The crew
was conducting searches near the demarcation line that separates the territorial waters of
Iran and Iraq. Iranians claimed that the sailors and marines had “invaded” Iranian waters
and demanded an apology, while Britain maintained that the crew members were well
within Iraqi waters and demanded their unconditional release.14
“ Ir a n l e a d e r C o u r t s Lat i n Ame r i c a Al l i e s , ” Boston Globe , at
_america_allies], accessed on June 12, 2008.
“Ahmadinejad Says Sanctions Will Not Harm Iran’s Army,” Belfast Telegraph, April 18,
“Ahmadinejad Calls Off Trip to US,” Voice of America News, March 23, 2007.
John Ward Anderson, “Iran Releases 15 Captive Britons: Naval Crew Said to Be Headed
Home, Bringing Tense Standoff to a Close,” Washington Post Foreign Service, April 5, 2007,
On April 4, 2007, Ahmadinejad announced that his government would release the
15 detained British sailors and marines as an “Easter season gift to the British people.”
The crew left for London on April 5, 2007, onboard a commercial airline.
On August 28, 2007, in a lengthy news conference from Tehran, Ahmadinejad said
that, contrary to recent news reports, Tehran has not slowed its nuclear activity.
Ahmedinejad also warned Iran would respond if the United States went ahead with plans
to label the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization.15 On November 7, 2007, while
addressing thousands of Iranians gathered in Birjand, in eastern Iran, Ahmadinejad
claimed that his country has now reached a key nuclear target of operating 3,000
centrifuges for enriching uranium. His claim, however, contradicted the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report drawn up by IAEA Chief Mohamed El-Baradei;
the agency put the number of centrifuges working in Natanz at close to 2,000 with another
650 being tested.16
At the U.N. General Assembly
On September 25, 2007, addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Iran’s nuclear
activities, Ahmadinejad said, “The issue of Iran’s nuclear activities is a matter only for
the United Nations atomic watchdog now and not the Security Council.”17 He further
stated that “arrogant powers” were abusing the Security Council to prevent Iran enjoying
its rights and entitlements. He went on to say, “Previously, they illegally insisted on
politicizing the Iranian nation’s nuclear case, but today, because of the resistance of the
Iranian nation, the issue is back to the IAEA, and I officially announce that in our opinion
the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed and has turned into an ordinary Agency matter.”18
Much of his speech at the General Assembly seems to have been dedicated to
criticism of what he calls “certain powers.”19 According to Ahmadinejad, these “certain
powers” were responsible for many of the world’s problems. “These powers routinely
breached human rights despite claiming to be exclusive advocates of those rights;
aggressively attacked indigenous cultures and national values; promoted lewdness and
violence; perpetuated gross economic imbalances between countries; violated rules of
“Ahmadinejad: Iranian Nuclear Program Not Slowed,” Voice of America, August 28, 2007,
Ali Akbar Dareini, “3,000 Uranium Centrifuges Fully Working, Iran says,” USA Today,
November 7, 2007.
“Iranian President Tells General Assembly that Nuclear Issue is Now Closed,” U.N. News
Service, September 25, 2007, at [http://www.un.org/apps/news/printnewsAr.asp?nid=23969].
international law and disrespected their global commitments; and escalated the arms
Reportedly, the September 24, 2007, discussions between the Secretary General Ban
Ki-moon and Ahmedinejad were primarily focused on nuclear and Afghan issues. In the
meeting, the Secretary General pressed Ahmadinejad to comply fully with the work plan
Iran recently reached with the IAEA and to contribute toward the implementation of the
relevant Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear activities.
On March 2-3, 2008, Ahmadinejad visited Baghdad. The visit was the first by a
regional head of state to visit Baghdad since the 2003 American occupation of Iraq.
While on his two-day visit, he announced $1 billion in export credits for Iranian goods
to Iraq as well as a series of trade pacts with his “brotherly” neighbor.21
On May 8, 2008, while addressing the Iranian Parliament, Ahmedinejad lambasted
the 60th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel. He called Israel a “stinking
corpse” and said that “those who think they can revive the corpse of this fabricated and
usurper regime are mistaken.”22 He went on to say that “If any regional countries assist
the Zionist regime, they will burn in fire arising from nations’ hatred.”23 Reportedly, he
added, “Today the reason for Zionist regime’s existence is questioned, and this regime is
on its way to annihilation.”24
On his first visit to Western Europe on June 2, 2008, Iran’s President Ahmedinejad
received a frosty welcome after offending Israel on the eve of his departure to Rome for
the U.N. food summit on rising food prices.25 Before his departure to Rome, he said,
“Israel would soon disappear off the map and the ‘satanic power’ of the United States
would be destroyed.”26 He added, “This will happen whether we are involved in it or
“Big Brother Comes to Town: Iraq and Iran,” The Economist, London, March 8, 2008, p.71.
“Ahmedinejad Calls Zionist Regime a Stinking Corpse,” Islamic Republic News Agency, May
Nazila A. Fathi, “Iran: A Hate Note on Israel’s Birthday,” The New York Times, May 9, 2008.
Silvia Aloisi, “Ahmedinejad, Mugabe Given Cold Shoulders at Summit,” Boston Globe, June
Phil Stewart, “Ahmedinejad: Israel to Vanish With or Without Iran,” Reuters, June 3, 2008.