President Ahmadinejad comes under criticism for his reaction to Hugo Chavez’s death
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eulogy for Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who passed away on Tuesday, March 5, and his declaration of a national day of mourning in Iran following Chavez’s death drew strong criticism from the Iranian president’s political critics and from clerics.
In a condolence letter sent by the Iranian president to Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s vice president, Ahmadinejad expressed his condolences for the death of the Venezuelan leader and described him as a believer, an advocate of justice, and a revolutionary, who was committed to human and divine values and followed in the footsteps of the prophets. He referred to Chavez as a “martyr” (shaheed) who died in the service of his people and the defense of human and revolutionary values. Ahmadinejad wrote that Chavez lives on as long as justice, freedom, faith, and humanity still exist. The president of Iran concluded his letter by saying that he has no doubt Chavez will return on the day of salvation, along with the Mahdi (“the Vanished Imam”), Jesus, and other “men of righteousness”, and will help establish peace, justice, and perfection. The president also mentioned Chavez’s death at the beginning of the March 6 government session, in which he referred to the Venezuelan president as a “believer” and a “revolutionary” who acted in the spirit of the Basij and the party of God.
Ahmadinejad’s eulogy for his ally drew strong criticism from the religious establishment and from his political critics. At the close of an Assembly of Experts meeting that ended on March 6, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, Tehran’s Friday prayer leader, said that the president’s eulogy was exaggerated. Khatami noted that the president would have done better to settle for a diplomatic statement rather than dealing with matters of faith. It is natural for the president to publish a condolence letter, the high-ranking cleric said, but bringing matters that involve religious faith into his letter was not the right thing to do. The president, Khatami added, was well aware that his message would draw strong reactions from the clerics, and he had to avoid taking measures that had the potential of provoking tensions (Khabar Online, March 6).
The cleric Hojjat-ol-Eslam Seyyed Mehdi Tabataba’i, too, criticized the president in the wake of the eulogy and the declaration of a national day of mourning in Iran. The president’s remarks about Chavez coming back on the day of salvation along with the messiah and Jesus are incompatible with Islamic religious law, Tabataba’i said, and the president would have been advised to say simply that Chavez had walked the path of Jesus and lived in accordance with his teachings. Declaring a national day of mourning was also a mistake and a drastic measure, he added, even though Chavez was Iran’s friend and ally who fought against imperialism (the daily Ebtekar, March 7).
Media affiliated with the president’s critics also criticized the eulogy and the declaration of a national day of mourning following Chavez’s death. The Asr-e Iran website argued that the eulogy is an affront to the Shi’ite faith. Publishing a condolence letter on the president’s behalf was appropriate and even necessary given the friendly relations between Iran and Venezuela, said a commentary article posted by the website. However, the president’s mention of matters of faith deserves criticism. The president was within his right to give a eulogy for his ally, but he had no right to trade in Shi’ite beliefs and discuss Chavez’s future return along with the Mahdi. The president has no religious authority that would allow him to assert that Chavez will come back after his death. He is just a president who fulfills a purely political role. Trading in religious beliefs due to the death of a president in Latin America, who was not religious at all, is unacceptable and intolerable (Asr-e Iran, March 6).
The Tabnak website said that the government’s decision to declare a national day of mourning is baffling, particularly when considering the fact that the government didn’t see fit to declare a national day of mourning after tragic events that have taken place in Iran in the past several months. The government did declare a national day of mourning after the earthquake that hit Azerbaijan several months ago, but it was one day late and only applied to East Azerbaijan Province. No day of mourning was declared after the bus crash disaster that took place in southwest Iran this past October and caused the death of 26 students, after the death of high-ranking clerics, after a passenger plane crashed in Orumiyeh, or after dozens of students died in a fire that broke out in the village of Shin Abad in West Azerbaijan Province in December. It is unclear, therefore, why the government declared a national day of mourning in the particular case of Hugo Chavez’s death (Tabnak, March 6).
The report on the president’s remarks and the declaration of a national day of mourning also drew reactions from web surfers. Some of them justified Ahmadinejad’s reaction to Chavez’s death in light of the special relationship between Iran and Venezuela. In contrast, many other Iranians expressed their discontent with the government’s reaction, particularly when considering the government’s lukewarm reaction to tragic events that have taken place in Iran these past several months.
Some web surfers discussed the earthquake in Azerbaijan, which didn’t even cause Iran’s state-controlled TV stations to interrupt their regular programming. One web surfer claimed that the president’s reaction is proof that the citizens of Iran are at the bottom of the priority list, while another noted that the president would have done better to deal with the problems of the citizens instead of declaring a national day of mourning. Yet another web surfer said that, by referring to Chavez as a Basij member, Ahmadinejad offended all Basij members, including the dead, the crippled, and the MIAs. He wondered how a person who had his pictures taken with exposed women can be compared to a Basij member (Tabnak, March 6).
On several occasions in the past several years, President Ahmadinejad referred to Chavez as a religious, believing person. He more than once referred to his Venezuelan friend as a “worshipper of God and servant of the people”, and referred to the nations of Iran and Venezuela as two peoples working on the basis of unity and “reliance on God”.
During a visit to Iran held by Chavez in September 2009, President Ahmadinejad even invited him to Imam Reza’s tomb in Mashhad. Chavez’s visit to the Shi’ite holy site provoked strong criticism in Iran, since entry for non-Muslims is considered forbidden. In the wake of the visit, the Fararu website posted a strong-worded article titled "Has Chavez converted to Islam?” The article said that, even though Christians and Muslims believe in the same god, it is not enough to justify having a Communist, Christian president visit the tomb of Imam Reza (Fararu, September 7, 2009). Some of Iran’s senior clerics also expressed their reservations about the Venezuelan president’s visit to the holy site.
In addition to criticism of the president’s reaction to Chavez’s death, the Baztab website published a strong-worded anti-Ahmadinejad commentary article titled “I wish Ahmadinejad was at least like Chavez”. The article said that, even though there is an alleged resemblance between Chavez and Ahmadinejad’s populism, there is, in fact, a considerable difference between them, one that can be plainly seen in the level of public popularity enjoyed by the two presidents.
President Chavez won the support of the underprivileged masses in his country since he was able to use Venezuela’s oil revenues for the good of the people. He improved their welfare and increased their income, which won him the support of public opinion and propelled him to a third presidential term in a free election in spite of his illness. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, has not improved the situation of his country’s citizens. Even though Iran’s oil revenues have increased by a similar extent to Venezuela’s, these revenues flowed into the pockets of just a few individuals, which is why Ahmadinejad does not enjoy the same level of popular support that Chavez did. Those Iranians who were hungry before have become hungrier, and those who were poor have become poorer (Baztab, March 6).