The latest move by Iranian former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in which he announced his candidacy for the presidential elections, due on May 19, 2017, will likely confuse calculations by Iranian political forces. These forces are currently exerting diligent efforts to unify their ranks and increase their candidates’ chances of winning the upcoming elections.
Without a doubt, the confusion is not solely caused by Ahmadinejad’s candidacy and its resulting re-arrangement of the candidate mapping positions. This move comes following obvious polarization between the reformists backing President Hassan Rouhani- who himself seeks a second term in the same elections- and the fundamentalist conservatives-who appear to be attempting to avoid a recurrence of the their bid in the 2013 elections where votes were scattered between them, leading to Rouhani’s sweeping win from the first round. Another reason is that Ahmadinejad’s move defies the will of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who had “advised” the former president not run in the elections, after Ahmadinejad launched an early election campaign in a number of Iranian provinces and cities. This defiance is an unprecedented step never taken by any Iranian politician.
It can be said that Ahmadinejad’s move is no more than a political maneuver through which he seeks to achieve hidden goals, the most important of which is possibly not the former president’s bid to win next month’s elections and assume once again his old office. It is noteworthy that Ahmadinejad announced his candidacy, along with his former vice president for executive affairs Hamid Baghaei, and his son-in-law Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei who had run in the last elections but was not endorsed by the Guardian Council of the Constitution that holds veto power over candidacy requests.
Hence, Ahmadinejad’s main goal is to “bargain” with the Guardian Council of the Constitution to allow his main candidate Hamid Baghaei to be approved. Ahmadinejad’s bargaining chip in this bid is that he would threaten to continue his presidential bid in case the Council rejects Baghaei, as was the case with Mashaei. If successful, his bid would put pressures on the fundamental conservatives who are working hard to unify their popular voter base and increase their chances of winning the presidency this year, and deny Rouhani a second term.
In other words, Ahmadinejad’s move aims to secure a leverage to confront the fundamental conservatives and threaten that he can once again confuse their calculations. This is especially after some conservative political powers succeeded in forming the so-called Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces, or Jamna, whose five candidates include Ebrahim Raisi, a known cleric and the current custodian and chairman of Astan Quds Razavi. The Front reached an agreement that four of the candidates should withdraw from the presidential race two days before it starts in favor of the fifth candidate to enable him to become the most powerful rival facing Rouhani.
This was evidenced in statements made by Ahmadinejad after he registered to run for president saying that he did so to protect his former aide Hamid Baghaei, and reiterated that he remained committed to his “moral promise” to Khamenei of not running for the May 19 election. He said “I repeat that I am committed to my moral promise and my presence and registration is only to support Mr Baghaie.”
Establishing a new “current”
Ahmadinejad seeks to establish a third political movement that can overcome the existing traditional polarization between the moderates and the fundamental conservatives (hardliners), and create his own popular support base especially in remote regions and cities where he enjoyed wide popularity during his two presidential terms. He would capitalize on this advantage to enhance the possibility that some of his proponents achieve notable results in municipal elections that coincide with the presidential race.
Simply, the former president of the republic wants to send across the message that he embraces approaches that, to a certain extent, are different from those of the moderates and fundamental conservatives, especially when it comes to the most important issues. These issues include, but are not limited to, the economy and relations with the US Trump Administration. Ahmadinejad made sure to send him a message through his website and the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which oversee the interests of the United States in Iran, on February 26, 2017. The message came after Trump decided to ban citizens of a number of predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, from entering the United States.
It is possibly safe to say that Ahmadinejad is trying to take advantage of the current tensions and escalation between Iran and the United States, after the US military strike against the Bashar Assad regime’s Shayrat airbase on April 7, 2017, following the regime’s chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate. In addition to the US imposed sanctions on Tehran Prisons Organization and its head Sohrab Soleimani, a brother of Iran’s most high-profile military chief, Qasem Soleimani, over the Iranian authorities’ human rights violations. Ahmadinejad’s aim is to enhance the chances of his own candidate in winning this position.
Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad’s candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections is an adventure whose outcome is not guaranteed for two main reasons. The first reason is that Iran’s top leader Ali Khamenei and the regime’s most influential institutions such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps, will not hesitate to retaliate on Ahmadinejad’s challenge to the Supreme Leader who advised him not to run for office. This is clear in rising criticism of Ahmadinejad’s announcement of candidacy where some of his allies and supporters made sure to make their rejections clear to him.
The second reason is that it is not yet possible to predict what moves the Guardian Council of the Constitution would make concerning the former president or his aide who was accused of being involved in corruption in 2015, and was questioned by the judicial authority. The Council can use these accusations as a pretext to disqualify the candidate from the elections.
Hence, perhaps it can be safe to say that the Council often uses general and loose justifications for disqualifying a large number of candidates. The most recent instance is when the electoral watchdog rejected the candidacy request of former president and former head of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (died on January 8, 2017) for the 2013 elections on the pretext that he was too old to shoulder the burden of executive affairs of the state.
In light of the above, it can be said that the main variable that would determine whether Ahmadinejad would withdraw from the race or continue his bid is pressures from the top leadership and influential institutions, as well as by the move that the Guardian Council of the Constitution would make on Hamid Baghaei’s candidacy in particular. This would eventually lead to the final shaping of candidate mapping positions of the presidential elections that will be held at a time when Iran has come under no easy regional and international pressures.