Iran’s former hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has his eyes on running the country once again, that is, if he gets a chance. Ahmadinejad’s criticism of his successor President Hassan Rouhani points to the confusion that prevails inside Iran on how to save the Islamic revolution of 1979. Iranians are generally unhappy with the revolution’s failed promises of saving the poor and building a just society, and Ahmadinejad is riding on this wave of discontent. But signs point to the fact that Ahmadinejad is as unpopular today as when he was in the presidency.
As President, Ahmadinejad was charged by his opponents for rigging Iran’s presidential elections, which led to a popular uprising dubbed the “Green Movement” in 2009. Ahmadinejad’s renewed bid to run for president comes in the wake of widespread discontent with Rouhani’s failed attempts to salvage the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal signed with world powers to bring promised economic benefits.
Ahmadinejad has used this Rouhani failure to advance his political platform, shaped in part by ongoing debates on how to pull Iran through its current political and economic crises including tensions with the Trump administration which snowballed after it pulled out of the nuclear deal last May.
Ahmadinejad believes that he is the right man to face these crises, given that the nuclear talks started during his presidency in response to what he believes was his uncompromising position on the issue of advancing Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
According to hardliners such as Ahmadinejad, things have gone downward since Iran agreed to halt major nuclear enrichment projects after the nuclear deal was made. Economic woes have taken their toll on Iran already, leading to a steady devaluation of the Iranian currency since Trump’s announcement last May that the US would pull out of the nuclear deal. Though Rouhani went to parliament to defend his policies, including an ongoing desire to engage with the West, parliament was not convinced that he could lead Iran forward.
Ahmadinejad happens to agree with the Iranian parliament and believes that he can run the country better, especially given his government’s experience in evading the sanctions that were imposed on Iran during the Obama administration. Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a candid former hardline member of parliament who thinks Iran is badly in need of new leaders, calls the former president a delusional man.
Despite a sense of gloom about Rouhani’s performance, the vast majority of Iranians seem to mock Ahmadinejad’s efforts to capitalise on this failure. In fact, most consider Ahmadinejad to be an ignorant hypocrite. The poor in Iran, who once supported Ahmadinejad, have shown no interest to support him again given his government’s failure to improve their welfare. Most recently, the former captain of Iran’s national football team, Ali Daeei, refused to sit next to Ahmadinejad on a plane ride back to the capital Tehran. He says Ahmadinejad, an avid football fan, was responsible for his firing. Though Daeei’s performance in his job was reportedly below expectations, he also happened to support Ahmadinejad’s political opponents during the Green Movement.
Among Iran’s political elite, Ahmadinejad is labeled as a “third-rate political partisan” whose closest aides like Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Habibolah Jozeh Khorasani, Hamid Baghai and Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh have all faced a host of charges ranging from financial corruption to treason.
Ahmadinejad still enjoys a level of support among government employees that he hired and placed in positions of power within Iran’s parliament, intelligence apparatus and within Iran’s vast network of provincial governorships.
Staunch Ahmadinejad supporters like the former member of parliament Hamid Rasaee have long been sidelined and taken to setting up pro-Ahmadinejad news outlets such as the Noh Dey Weekly, without much following. Ahmadinejad’s chief intelligence advisor and right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, faced corruption charges and went on trial last year, though his sentence was commuted when Ahmadinejad promised to publicize other corrupt leaders in Iran.
Under President Rouhani, the government has cracked down on businesses that helped Ahmadinejad circumvent the US sanctions that the Obama administration enforced against Iran. These include oil networks led by Babak Zanjani, who faces a death sentence, and just recently this week a network of businessmen and businesswomen extending from Iran to the United States, who worked to salvage Iran’s petrochemical industry under US sanctions. Both networks are charged with widespread corruption and embezzlement of billions of US dollars.
Many other provincial governors, bankers, and Friday prayer leaders who held positions of power during Ahmadinejad’s presidency have quietly fled the country or moved to other posts. This includes Mahmoud Reza Khavari, who fled to Canada after being caught in an embezzlement scandal under Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Ahmadinejad insists that he had nothing to say against Khavari, but says he questioned his credentials as a good banker.
Ahmadinejad’s remaining close media and security advisors who operate in different corners of the country are under pressure to yield power. Last year, some 43 members of Iran’s current government employees who had previously been close to Ahmadinejad publicly rescinded their support for him.
Ahmadinejad has not shied away from criticizing the powerful Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, and this has made it easier for Ahmadinejad’s supporters to part ways with him. Ahmadinejad’s criticism of Khamenei for inaction as Iran’s problems grow comes as Khamenei himself is under siege for the country’s crippling economic problems.
According to Ezatollah Zarghami, who was Ahmadinejad’s former head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Broadcasting, several state institutions controlled by the Supreme Leader had asked to run the country instead of the Rouhani government, but the Supreme Leader rejected the proposal. These institutions include the Executive Staff of the Order of the Imam and the Foundation for the Oppressed, both of which control billions of dollars of state funds. They concluded that the Rouhani government was incapable of running state affairs and that they needed to step in to fill the vacuum caused by government inefficiency. Under pressure from all sides, the Supreme Leader rejected allowing parallel powerful institutions in Iran to run state activities and permitted the Rouhani government to carry on.
But the Supreme Leader has taken steps to position his supporters in key government posts. He made the call to avoid parallel decision-making in the country in a meeting with members of Iran’s Expediency Council, the body responsible for electing the next Supreme Leader. While Rouhani himself did not attend the meeting, the Larijani brothers including the former head of the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, were there. Since then, Sadeqh Larijani has been appointed to lead the Expediency Council, while his brother Ali Larijani remains a potential presidential candidate in Iran’s next elections scheduled for 2021.
Despite the siege on Rouhani, it is not clear whether Ahmadinejad has much real support to run the country again. But as a former president, he still continues to enjoy state security and immunity from prosecution. And in Iranian politics, anything goes to save the revolution, including unexpected election victories for a man who says he is in touch with Imam Mahdi, the savior of humanity at the end of time, and whose hardline critics consider him a pest for Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist movement.
As a result, Ahmadinejad is still counting on getting the Supreme Leader’s support, because Khamenei had previously supported his candidacy for president. According to another member of parliament, Ali Motahari, the leader personally likes Ahmadinejad. The two men seem to share a great deal in common, including seeing the West as an enemy.
Still, it is a mystery how Ahmadinejad has survived the system that suppresses other forms of disobedience. Ahmadinejad’s current role as a mere political partisan may, in fact, serve the Supreme Leader who needs to encourage shallow dissenters within the system to maintain the revolution’s democratic façade. Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president with a following, has long been banned from appearing in public events or having his picture published in the media. The powerful conservative, former late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died under mysterious circumstances which many in Iran have questioned. The Green Movement’s leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavian and Mehdi remain under house arrest.
Some believe that Ahmadinejad’s survival is due to his ability to maneuver as a hardliner. In an interview with the monthly Bahar Javdane, Ahmadinejad rejected the idea that a single future leader could lead Iran out of its current predicament. He insists that the country as a whole has to move in line with the times. He speaks freely with no concern for powerful institutions such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). He has said he would expose the IRGC’s involvement in offering money to his men to distribute in Africa and he has said that he has the papers to prove this. Ahmadinejad has criticized state lawyers, but his government used the same lawyers to put critics in prison. He has called the imprisonment of a close former aide Hamidreza Baghai who is on a hunger strike as inhumane while at least one critic, Hoda Saber, lost her life due to her hunger strike in prison while Ahmadinejad was president.
So far, Tehran is more inclined to confront Ahmadinejad rather than to give him any major political platform. The Supreme Leader has banned his supporters from running in the upcoming presidential elections, dismantled Ahmadinejad’s project of setting up an international university in the capital Tehran and barred Ahmadinejad from forming a political party. But Ahmadinejad still attends meetings of the Expediency Council, to which all of Iran’s former presidents are invited, despite irritating others with his presence and persistent questioning of state policies. He has confirmed that he no longer has direct access to the Supreme Leader and that his own previous supporters compare him to the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO). The MKO is an exiled group and is considered as one of the revolution’s most formidable enemies.
Ahmadinejad is also focused on fixing his image as a hardliner to boost his popularity. He said he wished he had time to respond to all his Twitter messages. He has recently taken to responding to some tweets in English and enjoys writing and publishing critical letters as well as uploading video messages.
Ahmadinejad’s shifting views have made it hard to call him a die-hard revolutionary hardliner. He has shown a clear desire to propagate the sort of socialist views that his South American friends in Venezuela and Bolivia had once endorsed. His words reflect some kind of mystical tendencies as a replacement for Islamic dogmatism that has characterized the Iranian leadership’s polemics since the revolution. As a historical center of mysticism, Iran has a rich heritage to share that Ahmadinejad is now tapping into to win more base support.
In addition, Ahmadinejad insists on shifting his charismatic style to confront what he calls multiple world injustices. He is giving more frequent interviews and talks about anything he can. Recently, he insisted that for a government to survive, it should be nationally driven. He believes that in this form of government, it is the president who should have all the powers to run the country with a handful of trusted deputies, and possibly a bicameral parliament with a strong grassroots presence at local and provincial levels. Macro decisions should reflect local concerns and he believes that Iran has to fix its foreign policy challenges first before moving forward. Showing his socialist inclinations, he believes there are quick fixes to Iran’s poverty problem, such as land distribution in favour of the poor.
In a sense, Ahmadinejad may be masterfully mirroring his own past mistakes as the former president in a new light. He had the opportunity as president to practice all the policies that he now preaches, but failed. But in a country where realities shift daily due to constant political and economic pressures, Ahmadinejad might still have some skeptical listeners. But to turn them into staunch followers is a different question. For now, the former president refuses to accept that he ever made any mistakes. And while he is mastering how to operate outside normative state parameters, he is dismissed and shunned as a non-cleric, in a country where the clerics still rule.