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It was just a hug: Why we should cut Iran’s Ahmadinejad some slack

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) offers his condolences to Elena Frias, mother of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez, during the funeral service at the Military Academy in Caracas March 8, 2013, in this picture provided by the Miraflores Palace.


At the funeral for former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who died last Wednesday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did what most people encountering a grieving mother would do: He gave Elena Frias a hug.

But to the Iranian president, Chavez's mother is a "non-mahram" (a woman who is not considered a close relative) so when pictures of this gesture hit the wires, Iran's clerics were quick to scold the head of state on his "forbidden" behaviour.

Religious leader Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi referred to the physical contact as "clowning around" and said Ahmadinejad "failed to 'protect the dignity of his nation and his position,"' according to the Associated Press report.

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Even shaking hands is considered taboo conduct between unrelated members of the opposite sex.

Ahmadinejad is not one to invite sympathy; the controversial president has a laundry list of career moves that call into question his views on human rights and nuclear armament.

But to be on the receiving end of such hostility after engaging in a genuine expression of emotion calls into question whether strict religious practices can be bent to allow for human compassion.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad was a personal friend of the Venezuelan president.

In the context of a funeral, you could argue that the formal behaviour practised in public settings does not apply. While this was hardly a private occasion, it was an exceptional one. Furthermore, he was on foreign soil where a hug is not treated as a sacrilegious act. Ahmadinejad does not strike as a naturally touchy-feely guy; so if the "empathy" defence does not sit well with clerics, let's chock this up to observing local custom.

So what happens now: Will Ahmadinejad feel compelled to renounce the embrace, thereby reinforcing his shortcomings as leader? Or will he stand by it, because really, it requires no further justification.

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