It's going to be his day of festival, the "Day of the Atom." To celebrate the event, Iran's president will travel on Wednesday to Isfahan, the pride of the nation and jewel of ancient Persia, one of the most impressive centers of culture in the Islamic world. It was in Isfahan that his predecessors, the Safawiden rulers, resided and established a great civilization at the end of the 16th century.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is arriving in Isfahan from the capital Tehran on his presidential aircraft, an aging Boeing 707, and the only foreign journalists on board are reporters from SPIEGEL -- a first. The provincial capital's powerful and important people are standing at attention on the tarmac: mullahs, military officials and bureaucrats.
Ahmadinejad, 52, slowly sinks to his knees in front of a four-year-old girl, whose black chador covers everything but her face. Reciting a verse from the Koran, he accepts a bouquet of flowers from the little girl. Then he gets into a black Japanese SUV, its top open so that he can wave to the crowds as he is driven into the city. Indeed, the crowds are so enthusiastic that the convoy is forced to come to a complete stop for minutes at a time at some intersections.
Ten thousand Isfahanis have gathered on the city's most magnificent square, which is named after the central historic figure of the Islamic Republic of Iran, revolutionary leader Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. The right half of the square is a black sea with a few dabs of color, as fully veiled women hold up pictures of the president. On the other side, men with three-day beards, their arms outstretched, fists to the sky, greet their leader with chants of: "Ahmadinejad, Independence, Justice!" Many are wearing green revolutionary drill outfits.
The enormous signs covered with slogans, hanging from the side of a building, have been the standard in this theocracy since the revolution 30 years ago: "Down with USA" and "Down with Israel."
Ahmadinejad refrains from using aggressive language in his speech, which lasts an hour and a half. He mentions new US President Barack Obama's offer to negotiate, but he focuses on the country's economic troubles and, of course, he speaks highly of Iran's prospects for the future -- thanks to nuclear technology, the "gem of our scientific community." The applause at the end is muted, as the president quickly disappears for midday prayers.
The next day, Ahmadinejad's program includes a visit to Isfahan's nuclear facilities on the outskirts of the city, where scientists are working on uranium enrichment. This is one of the mysterious factories the world fears, because it believes that the Iranians are building a nuclear bomb there.
Who is this Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this man the entire West sees as a potential threat to peace, as a Dr. Strangelove who seems to love the bomb a little too much? This man who has relished his role as a pariah on the stage of world politics during his four years in office, portraying himself as a persecuted man who has been denied the respect he deserves.
This contradiction between underdog and world leader is the leitmotif of his presidency. And what now? With the new US president dreaming of a world without nuclear weapons, is Ahmadinejad losing his bogeyman?
Security is very tight at the president's official seat on Pasteur Street in the Iranian capital Tehran, a relatively plain-looking complex of buildings in the center of this city of 12 million people. But in the anteroom of power, a scene of hero worship depicted on a very large picture is unsettling to the visitors from the West. It portrays smiling children running to their deaths. They are Khomeini's advance guard of miniature martyrs, children who were unscrupulously sacrificed in the war against Saddam Hussein.
This is the Iranian theocracy that sends shivers down the world's collective spine. For many, Iran is a nightmarish country, a combination of high-tech weapons and a religious ideology based on 1,400-year-old martyr legends that focuses on suffering. It is an isolated and unpredictable country, a wounded civilization whose leaders are taking their revenge on the West by striving to develop nuclear weapons and financing radical Islamists from Hamas to Hezbollah.
The Iranian president is currently under more pressure than usual. He is being asked to venture into new territory and respond to America's offer to relax tensions. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, threatened Tehran with "regime change" of the sort he announced and implemented in neighboring Iraq. Bush refused to so much as negotiate over the Iranian nuclear program and, with the arrogance of a superpower, helped unify the Iranian public against the "USA, the Great Satan." It was Bush who ensured that the relatively unpopular regime of mullahs, despite its mishandling of the economy, could stabilize itself.
Since the election of the new American president, who promised a change in foreign policy, it is no longer as easy for Ahmadinejad to demonize the United States, especially now that Obama has lived up to his promise of a new beginning -- with a practically revolutionary gesture.
On March 20, the US president gave a remarkable speech that was distributed, in the form of a video address with Persian subtitles, to television stations in the Middle East. On the evening leading up to their new year, Obama addressed the Iranian population directly, calling them "a great civilization" whose "accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world." He stressed that he is seeking constructive cooperation with Iran and promised negotiations.
But the new man in the White House also mentioned the commitments he expects from Tehran in return. Iran, he said, cannot "take its rightful place in the community of nations" through "terror or arms," but through "peaceful actions." "The measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy," he said, "it is your demonstrated ability to build and create."
The initial reaction from the Iranian leadership was muted. In a televised address, the powerful religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 69, said he was disappointed that Obama had not at least released Iran's frozen assets in the United States.
As hysterical as the Iranian leadership's anti-Americanism seems to be at times, it has valid historical reasons. In 1953, Washington's intelligence service brought down democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and then massively supported the Shah dictatorship for a quarter century. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was only able to launch his war against Iran with the help of American weapons and logistical guidance from Washington. The war lasted eight bloody years and ended in stalemate.
Hostility to the United States has become one of the key pillars of the theocracy. Will it collapse under Obama's friendliness and potentially substantial American good will? Can an American "grand bargain," a mixture of comprehensive political and economic concessions, stop the Iranians from building the nuclear weapons many believe they are seeking to develop? The United States, at any rate, will participate in all nuclear talks in the future, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Wednesday. The previous members of the negotiating group promptly invited Iran to enter a new round.
The US president is also under pressure to achieve progress on the nuclear issue. Time is running out for Obama, because the Iranians, according to a report released in February by the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, may already have reached "breakout capability." This means that with their centrifuges and more than 1,000 kilograms of low enriched uranium hexafluoride, the Iranians could soon be able to flip the switch in the direction of having their own bomb.
Iran continued its development activities in the shadow of years of negotiations with Europeans over freezing the nuclear program. Undeterred even in the face of sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council, Tehran installed and placed into service about 6,000 centrifuges needed for uranium enrichment in its nuclear facilities.
Now the existing, low enriched uranium hexafluoride can be refined to make weapons-grade uranium, either in the country's known enrichment facilities or, as many experts assume, in a location that remains unknown. If one thing is clear, it is that once it becomes known that Iran has embarked on this next enrichment step -- which, until now, has apparently been held up by a political decision -- a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities will be all but unavoidable. Experts believe that once this decision is reached, it could take less than six months for the Iranians to build their first bomb.
Is Time on the Iranian's Side?
Israel's new right-leaning government, with its Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his warmongering outbursts, is more or less openly threatening a strike -- even without American consent. The Israelis, who have their own nuclear weapons, cite the Iranian president's irrationality as justification. They assume that Ahmadinejad is planning a nuclear attack on the Jewish state, without consideration for Israel's certain vehement retaliation.
In fact, Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his desire to see Israel wiped off the map of the Middle East. But he has also repeatedly stressed that he has no intention to attack "the Zionist entity" with armed force. What does this man mean with such statements? How does he think, and what exactly makes him tick?
During his European trip last week, Obama made it clear that he will not give the Iranians as much time as they desire to respond to his offer. In a speech in Prague last Sunday, he said that the Iranian leadership faces a "clear choice," and he announced a possible tightening of sanctions against Tehran. Iran, he said, can either end its "nuclear and ballistic missile activity" or it "can choose increased isolation, international pressure and a potential nuclear arms race in the region."
The clock is ticking. But Iran is not simply a medium-sized regional power that can be ordered around at will. Ironically, America's disastrous war in Iraq has allowed its fierce adversaries in Tehran to benefit from a massive shift of power in the Middle East.
The conservative Arab nations, with their Sunni majorities, are now just as concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions as the fact that the Iraqi government now enjoys the best of relations with its fellow Shiites in Tehran. Tehran's increasing power also strengthens its militant clients in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Hamas and Hezbollah.
Whether the internally divided Palestinians will manage to come to terms and form a unified government for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is no longer in the hands of the inconsequential negotiators in Cairo, but will be decided instead by Hamas's patrons in Tehran. Tehran also decides whether the Lebanese Hezbollah or Hamas's extremists use primarily words to express their hostility toward Israel or, as is currently the case, resume their bloody terrorist attacks instead.
This places the Americans before the virtually impossible task of joining forces with Iran to resolve the classic Middle East conflict and its 30-year conflict with Tehran itself. For this reason, the Iraq question is also becoming increasingly urgent for Washington.
Obama knows that the United States could derive substantial benefits from cooperation with Tehran. Without Iran, for example, it will be almost impossible to bring peace to Afghanistan in the long term. In Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the center of conflict that Washington describes in its new strategic concept as a single unit known as "AfPak" -- the Americans and Shiite Iran have many interests in common. Tehran's rulers battled the Sunni Taliban radicals, whom they have always seen as dangerous neighbors and ideological foes, before the Americans did.
And Tehran, with the world's second-largest natural gas reserves and its third-largest oil reserves, has the capacity to do a great deal of damage to the international economy -- or help it overcome the global economic crisis.
Conversely, rapprochement with the United States and Europe would also bring enormous benefits to the Iranians. Without know-how from the West, the country will hardly manage to achieve the modernization it needs so urgently. With inflation approaching 30 percent and real unemployment exceeding 20 percent (12 percent, according to official figures), and more than a million drug addicts -- a distressing world record of addiction -- the country faces practically insurmountable problems.
Much, therefore, depends on the US president's courage to make sweeping concessions. But even more depends on Ahmadinejad and his true motivations. Is Iran's secretive president an unrestrained ideologue? Or is there in fact a pragmatist hiding behind his frequently aggressive rhetoric?
Before his ascent to the office of president, not even diplomats stationed in Tehran and familiar with all of the ins and outs of Iranian politics were familiar with this short man with the sparse beard and piercing eyes. The fiery revolutionary, hardworking to the point of exhaustion and filled with contempt for earthly wealth, rose to power from humble beginnings and became the hope of all "Mostasafin," the disenfranchised millions without whom the Islamic Republic probably would not exist today and for whom Ahmadinejad has fashioned himself into an Iranian Robin Hood.
Much like his great role model, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Ahmadinejad feels obligated to the permanently downtrodden members of society. As if he were one of them, he campaigned for president four years ago in Tehran's massive poor neighborhoods, traveled to the country's most remote places and promised the underprivileged their share of Iran's riches. He told them that he would fill their empty plates with the proceeds from the sale of oil, and that he would declare war on corruption and nepotism. The "era of oppression, hegemonic regimes, tyranny and injustice has reached its end," Ahmadinejad told supporters after his election.
But the political achievements of President Ahmadinejad have been more miserable than stellar. In addition to isolating his country even further in the world, he has ruined its economy with his chaotic economic policies. In the devastating assessment of Ali Larijani, the president of the Iranian parliament and Ahmadinejad's biggest domestic rival, whom he previously removed from his position as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator with the West: "The confusion is the result of the government arbitrarily dissolving offices and dismissing experts, ignoring parliamentary resolutions and stubbornly going its own way."
Instead, Ahmadinejad became an unmistakable, conspicuous figure on the world stage -- a provocateur par excellence. Practically from his first day in office, he spoke as if Iran were already a world power. He constantly lectured Jews, Germans and the Americans (and for good reason, under former President George W. Bush) on why he believed their Middle East policies were mistaken. In many cases, he chose even more categorical language, declaring the Western concept of democracy and liberalism a complete failure.
Nevertheless, it is quite possible that this man, who has probably done more damage to his country than any other president in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic, will enter a second term this summer -- simply because he lacks a convincing and courageous opponent.
The reformers are a burned-out and demoralized group, locked up, excluded from candidacy or simply timid, like their former idol Mohammed Khatami, whose two terms in office were failures.
The former president was long urged to run again, in the hope that his prominence and popularity would encourage the large political center to return to the polls and prevent Ahmadinejad's reelection. But the religious scholar abandoned his bid in mid-March, officially attributing his move to a desire to clear the way for a surprise candidate who hopes to garner votes in the reformist camp: 67-year-old architect and artist Mir-Hossein Moussavi.
Moussavi is of a significantly more robust nature than Khatami. As prime minister during the years of the Iraq war, he successfully managed the country's wartime economy. Critics note, however, that Moussavi's tenure was marked by a sharp rise in arrests and repression. He has not held any public office in 20 years and is virtually unknown among younger Iranians, who make up about 60 percent of the population.
On the surface, the elegant Moussavi would undoubtedly represent Iran more effectively on the international stage than Ahmadinejad. He appears to be more open to negotiations with the Americans. And yet, when it comes to the central nuclear conflict, the new candidate is just as obstinate as the current president. At a press conference in Tehran just last Monday, he noted that he too would not back down on the issue.
Which candidate the powerful religious leader Khamenei ends up supporting will likely be the decisive question. When Ahmadinejad came into office, he kissed Khamenei's hand. The two men were long considered extremely close ideologically, although since then Khamenei has more or less openly criticized Ahmadinejad's economic policies. Only recently, however, the religious leader spoke so positively about the president that many interpreted his words as an endorsement of his candidacy. Many observers of Iranian politics believe Ahmadinejad, because of his lasting popularity in rural areas, will be elected to a second term.
The SPIEGEL interview, which was rescheduled several times, takes place on Sunday evening, following a long drive through dense traffic alongside many BMWs, Mercedes and Toyota Land Cruisers, and past Gucci and Dior shops in upscale shopping malls. Tehran's upper 10,000 can afford anything and give lavish parties in the private, parallel universe behind the high walls of their villas.
Ahmadinejad, wearing his trademark windbreaker, looks even smaller than in pictures. He sits down and waits for the first question, constantly maintaining eye contact with his interviewers.
There are no questions that the Iranian president does not answer with questions of his own. He insists, most of all, on a few core concepts. One of them is justice, but he defines what justice is. Another is respect. He claims that he and his country are not afforded sufficient respect. This desire for recognition seems almost insatiable.
In Ahmadinejad's view, "hagh chordan," or the act of trampling on the rights of the Iranians, is a pattern that constantly repeats itself and comes from all sides, leading to a potentially dangerous mix of a superiority and an inferiority complex -- but not the irrationality of which the president is so often accused, especially by the Israelis.
Ahmadinejad certainly wants to negotiate -- but only on his terms, on his turf and at the time of his choosing. Nevertheless, that time could be approaching, because time is apparently on the Iranians' side.
And Obama's offer? Ahmadinejad will presumably stall his opponent in the West until the situation has shifted in his favor and he no longer needs to make any concessions.