The race for the presidency of Iran expanded unexpectedly Wednesday, when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a maverick politician who was sidelined over tensions with the political and religious establishment, registered as a candidate.
The surprising decision by Ahmadinejad, who became notorious in the West by threatening Israel and denying the existence of the Holocaust, is likely to present a test for Iran’s establishment as it prepares for the presidential election May 19.
Faced protests in '09, ouster in '13
Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 led to the largest anti-government protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Millions of people took to the streets claiming that his re-election had been marred by fraud.
He left office in 2013 after a major falling-out with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei and the rest of the establishment could simply choose to disqualify Ahmadinejad, as a vetting council they control is expected to do to hundreds of others who have registered as candidates. But responding to Ahmadinejad’s desire for a political rebirth might require a more finessed response, analysts said.
Favorite Rouhani seen as soft on West
President Hassan Rouhani is favored to win re-election. But many Iranians have been disappointed over the lack of economic recovery after the nuclear deal Iran reached with the United States and other major powers in 2015. Iran’s hard-liners strongly dislike Rouhani’s desire to reach out to the West and even to the United States. They accuse him of wanting to smooth the sharp edges of Iran’s ideology and being too willing to consider compromises on cultural issues.
The hard-liners have seized on popular discontent over the economy, and they tried to undermine and pressure Rouhani where they could. About a dozen pro-Rouhani activists who oversaw social media pages have been arrested in recent weeks. Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoun, was summoned to court last week on allegations of corruption. Morality police officers, whom Rouhani had promised to remove from the streets during the 2013 presidential campaign, are back and arresting women deemed to be wearing their Islamic scarves improperly.
Rebranding as an outsider
Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, has been quietly trying to rebrand himself. Ever since his falling-out with Khamenei, which was over the selection of the minister of intelligence, a position that requires the supreme leader’s approval, Ahmadinejad has been presenting himself as an anti-establishment figure — someone who is not afraid to ignore the will of Khamenei.
At a news conference last week, Ahmadinejad was reminded of a remark last year by Khamenei in which he hinted that he had told Ahmadinejad not to run again for office. “This was only an advice, not an order,” Ahmadinejad told reporters.
Supporters of Rouhani carefully welcomed Ahmadinejad’s decision to register as a presidential candidate. “Ahmadinejad registering is a big plus for Rouhani,” said Hossein Ghayoumi, a cleric who supports Rouhani. “He is planning to fight with the hard-liners, not us. Let them be.”
Hard-line candidate is a man accused
In their election calculations, hard-liners have been lining up behind Ibrahim Raeesi, a former judicial official. Many of them hope that Raeesi will one day succeed Khamenei as the supreme leader, and they think having executive experience would increase his chances. Raeesi heads the extremely powerful Imam Reza Foundation in Mashhad, in the east of Iran. But his credentials are tainted by accusations that he was involved in a death committee that issued verdicts that led to the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
Many Iranian news outlets had been predicting that the presidential race would fundamentally pit Rouhani, the incumbent, against Raeesi, the challenger favored by hard-liners. But Ahmadinejad, at his news conference last week, suggested a three-way contest.
Ahmadinejad aide raises eyebrows
Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line political analyst who supports Raeesi, noted that an aide to Ahmadinejad, Hamid Baghaee, had also registered as a candidate Wednesday. “In his dreams he might envision a sort of Putin-Medvedev interplay, where he or one of his aides can hold power,” Taraghi said of Ahmadinejad.
The Guardian Council, a 12-member committee that vets the candidates, will announce April 26 which candidates it determines are qualified to run. Usually, hundreds of hopefuls are disqualified because the council decides they are insufficiently Islamic or because their plans are not in line with the Islamic republic’s ideology.
Clock is ticking to rally support
Most analysts think Ahmadinejad is not likely to make the cut, unless he can make a significant show of support. He would have to mobilize his supporters over the next two weeks, said Hojjat Kalashi, a sociologist who is critical of the establishment.
“If he can’t show that he still has supporters, they will easily disqualify him,” Kalashi said.
Ahmadinejad has called upon his supporters to gather today in East Tehran, a middle-class area where he has lived most of his life. But the authorities seldom allow large gatherings, and the area around his house can easily be cordoned off by the security forces.
Whatever the outcome, Ahmadinejad’s decision to seek another run for the presidency presents a dilemma to Iran’s establishment. “Both a qualification or a disqualification will be costly for the ruling establishment,” Taraghi, the hard-line analyst, said. “Just how costly remains to be seen.”