By Eleanor Beevor
Outspokenness has always been former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s signature move. Despite having fallen from grace in Iranian political circles he’s still using it, but this time directed against the regime itself. His new status as a de-facto opposition figure has been a long time coming. He began falling out of favour with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei towards the end of his second term as President, over a series of disputes about his cabinet.
In 2009, shortly after Ahmadinejad’s election, his Vice President of choice and close friend, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was forced to resign on Khamenei’s order. Mashei is a curious ally for the hardline Ahmadinejad in many ways. Whilst Ahmadinejad regularly spouted Holocaust denial and threats to Israel, Mashei was controversial within Iran for comparatively moderate comments.
Going after religious scions
He came under fire from the clerical establishment for suggesting that it was the Israeli government that was Iran’s enemy, not the people of Israel. Still, he and Ahmedinejad shared an often-pugnacious stance towards the clerical establishment, possibly because of their shared religious belief in the imminent return of the Hidden Imam.
And so Ahmadinejad, in a move that verged on outright defiance of the Supreme Leader, made Mashaei his chief of staff instead. Two years later, Ahmadinejad also sacked Heidar Moslehi, the Intelligence Minister who was a close ally of Khamenei. Khamenei overruled him, forcing Moslehi’s reinstatement, which triggered an eleven-day absence from work by Ahmadinejad in protest.
As his term came to a close, with ever-more strained relations between himself and the rest of the political establishment, Ahmadinejad began doing his best to sleight his enemies. In March 2013 he broadcast a video in Parliament that purported to show the brother of Speaker Ali Larijani inviting corrupt dealings from another official. In doing so, he cemented an enmity with the still-powerful Larijani family, one which continues to affect him.
Ahmadinejad had hoped for Mashei to succeed him, but Mashei was barred from running in the 2013 election by the Guardian Council, the deciding body of clerics loyal to Khamenei. Ever since then, Ahmadinejad has been unable to exercise his influence within the ruling establishment. But what he can do outside of it is a different matter altogether.
In the past few months, Ahmadinejad and the government have been caught in a stand-off. Ahmadinejad’s increasingly vocal criticism is matched by a growing clampdown on his former government aides. This is no doubt intended to warn the ex-President that he also risks prosecution for offences during his time in office should he overstep the mark.
In March, government sentenced another of Ahmadinejad’s Vice Presidents, Hamid Baghaei, to 63 years in jail for embezzling public funds whilst he was in office. In response, Mashei stood outside the British Embassy in Tehran and burned a copy of Baghaei’s court verdict, saying that this was the result of British influence. Foreign interference is the favourite reason Ayatollah Khamenei gives for political misfortune. Having it turned on him was a stinging insult. It was met accordingly - Mashei was arrested four days later.
Still, Ahmadinejad has not backed down – quite the opposite. Shortly after the arrests, he published two letters he had sent to Ayatollah Khamenei that month. Contrary to the radically conservative position Ahmadinejad had espoused in the first few years of his presidency, the language of these letters was similar to that of the country’s progressive reformists.
He demanded a clampdown on the activities of the Revolutionary Guard and their illicit economic activity. He noted a widespread dissatisfaction with government among Iranians, and the “lack of transparency” around numerous government processes. He also refers to the “injustice” perpetrated by the judiciary, headed by Sadegh Larijani, of the same Larijani family whose corruption he tried to prove with his video expose in parliament. He even accused the Supreme Leader himself of having embezzled a fortune in state funds.
As much as he is a political pariah at the moment, it is unlikely anyone except Ahmadinejad could have made these criticisms and still walk free. The current stand-off is a point of delicate political balance, one which could easily be upset if the ex-president pushes his luck much further. Ahmad Majidyar, director of the Iran Observed project at the Middle East Institute, told Al Bawaba:
“While the Judiciary has jailed Ahmadinejad’s close aides to pressure him into silence, it is risky for the regime to arrest the former president himself at a time of escalating political upheaval in the country. Ahmadinejad still maintains support among poor Iranians, who are struggling economically, and the maverick regime insider could also disclose regime secrets if he’s pushed too hard. But if he threatens the regime in a serious way by mobilizing masses across the country, authorities will be forced to take action against him.”
Still, the threats have not curtailed Ahmadinejad’s push for new elections. In the earlier of his letters to Khamenei, he demanded fresh elections, stipulating that they should be free of military interference, and that the vetting of candidates should also be freed from the grip of the Guardian Council. This will ring extremely hollow to those who took part in the 2009 protests against the disputed election result that began Ahmadinejad’s second term. Over 2500 people were arrested, and tens of protestors died in the crackdown on the Green Movement.
Despite his headline-grabbing antics, Iran analysts are generally skeptical of Ahmadinejad’s chances of a new Presidential term, or even of being able to run for one. Dr. Afshin Shahi, a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Bradford and an expert on Iran, told Al Bawaba:
“Ever since the establishment of Islamic Republic, every president (with the exception of Ali Khamenei) has been burnt by the factional politics in Iran. No former president has been able to politically regenerate himself. Ahmadinejad started to have serious disputes with the Supreme Leader during the last two years of his second term. This was neither forgiven nor forgotten. I think for now he is politically dead wood with no prospects of reaching the corridors of power. His public criticism of the regime has attracted a lot of attention, but he doesn’t have a wide enough social constituency to become a major threat.”
Even so, he could be a force to be reckoned with as an outsider. The government of President Hassan Rouhani has taken several hits to its credibility. Widespread protests erupted at the turn of 2017 against the dire economic situation in Iran, a situation compounded by disappointment that the fortunes of ordinary people had yet to pick up after the nuclear deal. The deal was the cornerstone of Rouhani’s popularity, and if it has indeed been doomed by Trump’s hostility to it, he will be left with very few cards to play.
Yet Rouhani’s drop in approval does not necessarily mean that Iranians will fall back on Ahmadinejad, even if there is nostalgia for his presidency in certain circles. Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, chair of Iranian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, told Al Bawaba:
“Ahmadinejad is reinventing himself as a radical reformist at a time when Iranians continue to tinker on the democratic components of the Islamic Republic. But due to his performance in office, many Iranians are sceptical about his ability to be consistent. Having said that, in the ever fluid political climate in Iran, surprises happen. We might as well see a dramatic, almost epic comeback campaign of Ahmadinejad, who is revealing himself as the Don Quixote of Iranian politics. But even in that scenario, a comeback is unlikely to translate into a majority, even if Ahmadinejad is allowed to stand in the next presidential election. Iran is looking for new leaders, not recycled ones.”
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not be silenced anytime soon. But his days as a true change-maker in Iranian politics are most likely behind him.
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