It is clear that Iran’s former firebrand-in-chief Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president from 2005-2013, is attempting a political comeback.
First were the well-timed media profiles of visitors making the pilgrimage to his home in Tehran’s Narmak neighborhood seeking favors; next, the Iranian press accounts of Ahmadinejad’s opportunistic trips to Iran’s provinces; then rumors from spokespeople that he intends to run for the presidency in 2017; and now a public letter to the president of the United States seeking the repatriation of $2 billion of assets frozen in the US.
But will all of these efforts and publicity help him succeed in reclaiming the presidency, and winning the mandate of the Islamic Republic’s hardliners?
An Iran poll survey suggests that the former president now trails incumbent Hassan Rouhani by just eight percentage points in a head-to-head match-up, compared with 27 points in May 2015. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story – indeed, Ahmadinejad faces an uphill battle in regaining the regime imprimatur due to heavy political baggage.
Ahmadinejad was the Supreme Leader’s darling when he began his reign in 2005. It is believed that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei quietly supported Ahmadinejad while his influential son Mojtaba openly endorsed him in 2005, all in the midst of a run-off between Ahmadinejad’s campaign and that of the moderate former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
But as early as 2008, the bloom was beginning to come off the rose, with reports circulating that Khamenei was disappointed with Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, which “had led to steep inflation in basic necessities, from food to property values.”
Then came his hotly contested reelection in 2009, which saw the Supreme Leader publicly bless Ahmadinejad’s purported victory during a dispute between his camp and that of his challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. But at the same time, the cracks in the relationship continued to grow, with the Supreme Leader having to publicly chastise Ahmadinejad for his accusations of corruption against his opponents during live televised debates, saying “[o]ne doesn’t like to see a nominee, for the sake of proving himself, seeking to negate somebody else.”
Ahmadinejad soon fell even deeper out of favor. In 2011 he fired his intelligence minister, accusing him of being a spy who disseminated information to the Supreme Leader on his chief of staff – and preferred successor – Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. This led to Khamenei having to reinstate the intelligence chief, prompting Ahmadinejad to begin his “great sulk” – not appearing in public or participating in cabinet meetings for two weeks.
The mullahcracy in Tehran long had its eye on Mashaei, whom it suspected of attempting to undermine their religious authority.
Throughout the rest of his presidency, a fifth clerical column routinely targeted Ahmadinejad’s allies – in 2011 he saw at least 25 lieutenants arrested and accused of “black magic.” According to media reports, one arrested supporter was dubbed by a conservative daily as a “man with special skills in metaphysics and connections with unknown worlds” and was “accused of summoning a genie, who caused his interrogator to have a heart attack.”
By the 2013 presidential campaign season, the former president was considered damaged goods. In a final political rebuke, rumors ran rampant in Tehran that Ahmadinejad would face 74 lashes or six months in jail after he illegally accompanied Mashaei to register as a candidate. In the end his loyal confidante Mashaei was barred from running for the presidency.
Even after Ahmadinejad left office his record continued to haunt the halls of power in Tehran.
His first vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, was sentenced to five years in prison and forced to pay a $300,000 fine on undisclosed embezzlement charges; Hamid Baqaei, Ahmadinejad’s vice president for executive affairs, was arrested in 2015 on unspecified grounds; his ally and billionaire Babak Zanjani was sentenced to death for fraud and economic crimes in profiting off of sanctions imposed on Iran; current regime officials have called for Ahmadinejad himself to stand trial for mismanagement of the country; and the most recent “pay slip-gate” furor over the inflated salaries of the heads of state-owned companies seems to have begun during his reign.
Finally, let’s not forget the power of the Guardian Council. There is a precedent for a former president being prohibited from running for the presidency again: in 2013, the Guardian Council thwarted former president Rafsanjani’s ambitions for a third term, suggesting that Rafsanjani was too old. His battles – like Ahmadinejad’s – with the Supreme Leader have become legendary.
Ahmadinejad could find himself sharing a similar fate.
So, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is once again entering the political limelight, his record and reputation precede him. His list of enemies is long, but will memories of his reign be short with the lack of economic improvement in the aftermath of the Rouhani administration’s nuclear deal? Only time will tell.