God, Power, and Ahmadinejad

Power tempts leaders to believe they are guided by God

Posted Sep 28, 2012

President Ahmadinejad managed to outrage the Western world with another inflammatory speech at the UN on Wednesday, but there are two pieces of good news about him to console his enraged and fearful listeners.

Firstly, he has only nine more months in office. Second, he has a boss, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader since 1989. This supreme leader has final say over all matters including military, legal, and media.

This is good news because the apparently reckless and impulsive behavior of the Iranian president is likely due in part to the effects on his brain of holding power for almost eight years, a power that is much less constrained than is the case for leaders of democratic countries.

Even small amounts of temporary power, equivalent of carrying out an appraisal of an employee for instance, increase testosterone levels which alters brain function by boosting levels of the brain’s chemical messenger dopamine. In moderate doses, this can improve aspects of cognitive function, but it also can make people temporarily more impulsive, less empathic and less risk-sensitive.

The enormous levels of power that President Ahmadinejad has held has almost certainly altered his neurology and psychology such as to make him more reckless and risk-hungry, which has caused understandable concern throughout the world.

Unfettered power such as was held by former President Moammar Gadaffi of Libya for instance, results almost inevitably in grotesque psychological changes which often result in extreme narcissism, cruelty and mis-judgments. Adolf Hitler’s disastrous military decisions on the Eastern Front in the Second World War, for instance, may have arisen because of the brain-distorting effects of absolute power.

The artifacts of democracy — a free press, independent judiciary and fair elections, evolved to counteract the  distorting effects of power on leaders’ brains. And we should be grateful of the fact that Ahmadinejad has at least two of these constraints — a limited term in office and a boss — which limits power and therefore diluting, to some extent, its recklessness-inducing effects  on his brain. 

But there is also some bad news. His boss, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has no such constraints on his power. Worse still, the source of his power is supposed to be divine. What constraints can be imposed on God’s work?

Power’s inflationary effects on the ego easily tempt leaders and magnates into the belief that there is something supernatural behind their extra-ordinary achievements. In June 2003, for instance, George W. Bush reportedly told Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen[i] that God had told him to invade Iraq and his Iraq-war ally UK Prime Minister Tony Blair also believed that God wanted him to go to war to fight evil, one of his closest aids revealed [ii].

This followed a long set of historical precedents, with for instance the Roman emperor and dictator Julius Caesar allowing a statue to be erected of himself engraved with the words ‘the unvanquished demigod’. The billionaire J. Paul Getty Sr. even confided to friends that he believed himself to be the reincarnation of another Roman Emperor, Hadrian.

In the last years of Tony Blair’s prime ministership, I spoke with one of his top advisers. He was very defensive of his boss during our conversation, but his guard went down once. ‘It’s his constant certainty that worries me,’ the man frowned and muttered. It now seems that the source of this certainty may have been his belief in divine guidance of his actions.

But a sense of unwavering certainty is also a symptom of a brain fired up with dopamine, focused on action, and with a reduced capacity for self-scrutiny or for caution. The world is too complex for certainty — and a political leader who feels such certainty should make us anxious.

We know all about Ahmadinejad’s certainty: his messianic religious beliefs imbue his speech and actions with the fervour of a zealot, and zealots are nothing if not certain. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may not share the messianic beliefs of his president’s particular Shiite cult, but his permanent and absolute power will have altered his brain and judgment in potentially dangerous ways. Even though the neurological effects of power on Ahmadinejad’s brain may be somewhat constrained, there are no such constraints on his boss and this must be a source of continual concern for the world as Iran moves towards becoming a nuclear power.


[ii] Daily Telegraph 23 May 2009