Call it the Thoughtful Gesture That Dare Not Speak Its Name, or perhaps a case of compassionate fanaticism, but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in hot water for grasping hands and resting his head on the grieving mother of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez Frías at Chavez's funeral last Friday.
When the Venezuelan government released the photograph of Ahmadinejad and Elena Frías, 78, embracing, most of the world — even the Iranian leader's Western critics — probably saw it as "a rare glimpse of a firebrand politician's softer side," says Robert Mackey at The New York Times. But the hardline clerics who run Iran saw something very different: "Proof that the Islamic Republic's official representative had flouted that nation's absolute ban on physical contact between unrelated men and women."
Yes, "the reaction from religious circles was swift," says Arash Karami at Iran Pulse. Ahmadinejad has "lost control," Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, the Friday prayer leader in Isfahan, told the Mehr news service. "Shaking hands with a non-mahram (unrelated by family) woman, under any circumstances, whether young or old, is not allowed. Hugging or expressing emotions is improper for the dignity of the president of a country like the Islamic Republic of Iran."
The "guardians" who vet presidential candidates have to do a better job with the slate that will run to replace Ahmadinejad when he is term-limited out of office this summer, agreed Hojat al-Islam Hossein Ibrahimi of the Society of Militant Clergy of Tehran. All candidates should know Shia law, and "we know that no unrelated women can be touched unless she is drowning at sea or needs medical treatment."
Then things get weird. With Ahmadinejad under fire from senior Muslim clerics, his supporters started insisting that the photo of the Frías embrace was a forgery, saying that it is a doctored version of another photo showing Ahmadinejad embracing an old man:
The conservative Iranian news site Entekhab quickly threw cold water on that theory, showing that the photo of Ahmadinejad embracing the older man — who turns out to be the (much taller) Egyptian opposition politician Mohamed El-Baradei — is the forgery. With that story shredded, Shabakeye Iran, an online news site loyal to Ahmadinejad, blamed Frías for the embrace, insisting that the Iranian president approached with hands safely folded "in the manner of people from East Asia" when Chavez's "grieving mother, with tears coming down from her eyes, suddenly put her hands on top of his."
The other problem Ahmadinejad defenders have is that the president "was already under scrutiny by the conservative clerics who call the shots in Iran," says Kari Huus at NBC News. They didn't like his eulogy, in which he assured everyone that Chavez "will come again along with Jesus Christ and Al-Imam al-Mahdi to redeem mankind," placing him in the company of a 9th century Shia saint and the central figure in Christianity. Ahmadinejad also kissed Chavez's casket, framed prominently by a crucifix.
It wasn't all bad for Ahmadinejad, though. "Several hard-line websites ran an op-ed by Hojat al-Islam Hossein Souzanchi in which he warned against the 'probable wave of useless' coverage this situation would create," says Iran Pulse's Karami. Souzanchi, no fan of the president, said Ahmadinejad's transgression is not nearly as bad as the 2007 stumble by then-reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who was filmed shaking hands with women in Italy. "The problem with Khatami was that with the excuse of freedom he wanted to get away from religion having a role in interactions and decisions in the social arena and this isn't the problem with Ahmadinejad."
Iranians on the streets of Tehran were supporting the president for the opposite reason, says Ramin Mostaghim in The Los Angeles Times: He was sticking it to the mullahs. "I didn't vote for President Ahmadinejad, but good for him," said Hassan, 30. "I am happy. He is getting back at the hard-liners."
That said, it's a fool's bet to side against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has gone from backing Ahmadinejad in the past two elections to accusing him and his cronies of running in a "deviant current." The president will almost certainly survive his last few months in office, says Mostaghim in The Los Angeles Times, but suddenly "his future after his current term ends is cloudy."