Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, b. 1956, was elected president of Iran on June 24, 2005. The son of a blacksmith, Ahmadinejad is a longtime religious conservative; he has criticized Western culture as immoral. As a young man, he helped to found the student union that seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held diplomats and embassy workers there hostage for 444 days. He also joined the Revolutionary Guards. After receiving an undergraduate degree in civil engineering in 1976, he later earned a master's degree in the same field and a doctorate in traffic and transportation engineering and planning.
Ahmadinejad reportedly worked with the militias and the Revolutionary Guards in covert actions inside Iraq during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War. He later held a series of government posts. These included serving as advisor to the minister of culture and Islamic guidance and (from 1993 to 1997) as governor of Ardabil province. He was little known before he was appointed mayor of Tehran in 2003. As mayor, he curtailed some of the reforms instituted by the moderates who had previously run the city. Fast-food restaurants were closed, and male city employees were required to wear long-sleeved clothing and grow beards. The then-president, reformist Mohammad Khatami, refused him the privilege of attending cabinet meetings.
As he campaigned for the presidency in 2005, Ahmadinejad espoused a populist platform. He promised to improve the lives of the poor, saying that he would create jobs, increase wages, and provide pensions, low-interest loans, and expanded health insurance. He also vowed to tackle the problems of government corruption and inefficiency that many Iranians believed were responsible for the nation's lack of economic growth. In the first round of the election, on June 17, he surprised most observers by coming in second in the field of seven candidates. His 19.5% of the vote earned him a runoff spot against the predicted victor, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who barely secured 21% of the vote.
Ahmadinejad decisively won the second round, with 62% of the vote, and assumed office on Aug. 3, 2005. His victory meant that all of the appointed and elected institutions of government were thus in the hands of hard-liners. His comment in October 2005 that Israel "must be wiped off the map" reflected his more confrontational approach to foreign policy. It was condemned by the UN Security Council and damaged Iran's international standing. That did not deter him from later describing the Holocaust as a "myth." As expected, Ahmadinejad strongly defended Iran's controversial nuclear program; he also remained unenthusiastic about resuming relations with the United States. Domestically, he banned Western music from state-run radio and television stations as part of his campaign to return Iran to the ultraconservative principles of the 1979 revolution. At the same time, he worked to build his own political base outside the clergy.
As time passed, Ahmadinejad consolidated his power to a greater degree than past Iranian presidents, with the apparent approval of the nation's religious leaders. He was sworn in for a second term on Aug. 5, 2009, after a victory that many considered fraudulent. The huge demonstrations that followed the June 12 polls and the failure of many of the ruling elite to attend his inauguration reflected the way in which the election had divided the nation. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad remained firmly in control; he had the clear support of the Revolutionary Guards and Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
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