Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s behavior following the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who was one of his closest friends (the two frequently met in Tehran and in Caracas), boomeranged with criticism being leveled at Ahmadinejad and his government – regarding foreign policy and priorities as well as the President’s behavior since the death of the Venezuelan President and during the funeral.
For Ahmadinejad, Chavez was a true partner, but also a means to expand Iran’s activities in Latin America. Iran viewed this arena as part of its effort to create symmetry in the balance of powers with the United States and as a backdoor just as the US operates in Iran’s environment (Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Azerbaijan). Anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric and hostility to colonialism were common ground that bridged the political and religious ideological divides. Both presidents espoused revolutionary visions – Chavez as a successor of Simon de Bolivar, who liberated Latin America from Spanish conquest, and Ahmadinejad, who strives to position Iran as a regional power and to detach the Middle East from Western American influence.
The essence of this “brave friendship” is reflected in what many in Iran believe to be the President’s “irrational” response to Chavez’s death.Iran declared a national day of mourning. Ahmadinejad traveled to the funeral, but first published a eulogy in which he defined the deceased Venezuelan president in divine terms and as someone “who walked in the footsteps of the prophets.” The Iranian President did not stop there and included several of the basic tenets of the Twelver Shiites (Ithnā’ashariyyah) in his eulogy, saying that he had no doubt Chavez would return on Judgment Day and appear next to the Mahdi (the messiah according to the Shiite faith), Jesus and the other prophets, and would help establish peace, freedom and fraternity worldwide.
Ahmadinejad’s hyper-reaction and the photos published during Chavez’s funeral (in which he is seen hugging Chavez’s grieving mother, in violation of Islamic law) provoked a storm of controversy that is still going strong in Iran, and this issue has become a focus in the elections campaigns. Criticism of Ahmadinejad’s behavior was leveled by both religious leaders and political analysts from acrossIran’s political spectrum, and even across camps.
One of the central criticisms – and one not leveled for the first time – is the complete disregard Ahmadinejad and his government demonstrate in the face of Iranian disasters such as the earthquake in Azerbaijan, in which many Iranians were killed. The claim is made that the government did not declare a national day of mourning for the Iranian victims, while Hugo Chavez – a stranger and a non-Muslim – was awarded such a day. Another criticism leveled against Ahmadinejad came from the religious establishment, some of whom claimed that it was proper to publish a message of condolences in light of the special relationship between the two countries and leaders, but from there to “the waste and contempt shown for basic Shiite beliefs is far, far off. Concretely, the question asked is what authority does the President have to determine that Chavez will reappear alongside the prophets and redeem the world.
Alongside the political and religious criticism directed at Ahmadinejad, the photos of Chavez’s grieving mother continue to provoke a media firestorm and incite local Iranian opinion. One claim that is made by an analyst is that the President could be given the benefit of the doubt in the case of a “humane move” concerning Chavez’s mother, but it should be adopted with the same degree of patience towards young people and ordinary citizens in Iran on various issues rather than with the dogmatic and uncompromising harshness – such as actions against parties of young people.
Ultimately, Ahmadinejad’s behavior following Hugo Chavez’s death has fed the internal power struggle being waged ahead of the upcoming presidential elections and has provided ammunition to his many opponents, who claim that Ahmadinejad’s policies (and those of his successors who he is running in the elections such as Mashaei) are focused on foreign rather than Iran’s real domestic issues. As it pertains to Iran’s internal affairs, they make insults and accusations (against Larijani in the Majlis, for example), but when it comes to foreign affairs, they go out of their way to please foreigners. In this context, the President’s opponents reiterate the President’s conciliatory policies towards Egypt, when they receive nothing in return. In any case, Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy line currently serves as leverage for his opponents to block his efforts to establish his political sway and status in Iran through his supporters once his second and final term is over. At the same time, the President feels sufficiently confident to continue on his path despite the increasing criticism against him from all directions, including by the Supreme Leader and his representatives.