An expert's point of view on a current event.
May 25, 2021, 3:06 p.m.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two terms as Iranian President from 2005 to 2013 are best known for his ideological zeal, aggressive foreign policy, and angry speeches against the United States and Israel. Since leaving office, however, he has largely used his skills in populist agitation against the Iranian system of government. That latter campaign culminated this month when he re-enrolled as president.
As expected, Ahmadinejad was ultimately banned from running. However, this counts as a victory for the former president. He did not want to win the presidency this year – his plan is precisely to prevent him from winning in order to better present himself as a victim of a fundamentally unjust regime.
When Ahmadinejad signed up for this year's election at the Home Office, he immediately threatened a boycott of the election if the Guardian Council – the conservatively-led body responsible for reviewing candidates – decided to disqualify him. He also made it clear that he would not support any other candidate either.
Conservative figures were quick to react, criticizing Ahmadinejad for questioning the same electoral system that he had previously exploited twice to become president. But the former president was reluctant to stop irritating his former allies. Instead, in a subsequent interview, he called himself a "liberal democrat," a term often used by Iranian hardliners to discredit their opponents. He continued, "I am not the Ahmadinejad you are thinking of." This last part is key to understanding his message: that he is no longer the person we used to know.
Indeed, Ahmadinejad began his transformation a decade ago during his second term as president. His alienation from the Iranian government's conservative camp, including the supreme leader, was sparked by his expansive interpretation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's unequivocal support for him after the rigged 2009 elections. Ahmadinejad seemed to interpret this as a green light to do what he wanted in office. The result was serious friction between his government and almost every other powerhouse in Iran, including the judiciary, parliament, the IRGC and even Khamenei himself. For example, he accused the IRGC of "smuggling" and the judiciary of violating the Constitution. He also defied Khamenei's orders not to dismiss intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi.
What Ahmadinejad probably hadn't considered was that the same conservative camp that suppressed the Green Movement in his favor would do the same to all other potential troublemakers. After his second term ended in 2013, Ahmadinejad decided to retain his power by handing the presidency to a member of his inner circle. He threw his support behind his close advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei's offer for the presidency and even escorted Mashaei to the Home Office to register as a candidate.
Maschaei, loathed by the Conservatives for his controversial positions on Islam and the clergy, could not cross the barrier of the Guardian Council. He ended up in prison four years later on charges of "acting against national security" and "anti-system propaganda" among other charges. Hamid Baghaei, another close adviser to Ahmadinejad, faced a similar fate shortly after he was banned from running in the 2017 presidential election. This was the same election in which the Guardian Council also disqualified Ahmadinejad after ignoring Khamenei's advice not to run. At this point it had already become clear that neither he nor anyone close to him would have the opportunity to take on leadership positions in the country.
When Ahmadinejad concluded that he would not find a way back to power through the system, he decided to open a way around that system. In the past four years, he has crossed many of the clearest red lines in the Iranian political system, from supporting the 2018 and 2019 protests to speaking about “systematic corruption” in Iran and criticizing the country's intervention against Syria the will of the Syrian people. He went so far as to claim that he had nothing to do with the repression of the Green Movement protesters, suggesting instead that it was an "organized gang" within the security system that had resorted to violence against the people. At the same time, he launched an energetic social media performance to portray himself as a modern politician using new technologies to convey messages of "peace, freedom and justice" to the world.
Ahmadinejad's rejected candidacy should be seen as the final phase of this long-term rebranding campaign. He understood that it was very unlikely that the Guardian Council would qualify him for that year. But a rejection was exactly what he wanted because it can help him project the image of an opposition person who tirelessly strives for change and is not afraid to confront the Iranian establishment directly.
Ahmadinejad undoubtedly understands that he is unlikely to become president again – but his ambitions go well beyond that. If anything, he seems to be waiting for the power vacuum that will likely arise after the death of 82-year-old Khamenei. In a situation where there is no organized political opposition in the country and where opposition groups based abroad are either highly fragmented or lack popular support, he wants to take on the role of a national anti-establishment leader. According to Abdolreza Davari, Ahmadinejad's former advisor, who is now one of his staunch critics, the former president believes the Islamic Republic will collapse with Khamenei's death. However, contrary to his claims to be a liberal democrat, his ideal replacement for the current political system would be some other type of Islamic government with no velayat-e faqih or top leadership at the top.
To be successful, Ahmadinejad must broaden his political base. At present, the educated middle class – the traditional social base of the reformist camp – seems to have lost hope of working through the political system after seeing the disappointing record of President Hassan Rouhani and the growing authority of hardliners and security services. Ahmadinejad's goal seems to be to gradually win the loyalty of the lower classes and ideally the younger generation, who have no direct memory of his presidency and the Green Movement, by making constant rhetorical promises of justice, freedom and the fight against corruption. If history is an example, he may successfully rename himself an advocate for change. The late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president against whom the reform movement was founded in 1997, was able to rename himself as a reformist until 2005 and even as a reformist leader until his death in 2017.
Ahmadinejad is right: he is not the person the world got to know years ago. Ahmadinejad was once an ideological fanatic and an inexperienced president. Today he's a Machiavellian politician who knows how to play a long game. We'll soon know if he deserves enough momentum to have a chance to get to the top at some point.