Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: does he want to become president again?

12:28 18.08.2020 • Vladimir Sazhin , PhD in Historical Sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Recently, there have been media reports about the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to reenter big-time politics. Many observers believe that Ahmadinejad, who served as president of the Islamic Republic from 2005 until 2013, intends to run for the country’s top civilian job in May 2021, a move allowed by the Iranian constitution.

The ex-president has spent the past few months visiting the country’s various regions, speaking at meetings and rallies and being active on Twitter and Instagram popular among Iranian youth. He even has his own website - http://ahmadinejad.ir/.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also been making himself visible internationally, with personal messaged sent over the past few years to Presidents Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron. Recently, he sent a missive to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, urging him to end conflicts in the Middle East, including Yemen, and offering himself as a potential mediator in any peace process. He has sent similar messages calling for an end to the war in Yemen also to Abdel Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Shiite movement Ansar Allah (Houthis) currently in control of northern Yemen, and to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Speaking at a June 2020 rally in the northern province of Gilan, Ahmadinejad sharply criticized President Rouhani for approving a 25-year plan for cooperation between with China. The ex-president slammed the bilateral accord as "a secret deal with a foreign side against the interests of the country and the nation," to a thunderous applause from the gathering. [1]

There is no denying the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has supporters who root for him during his visits to the provinces, especially now that, amid the   socio-economic problems largely resulting from hard-hitting US sanctions, the liberal reformers, led by President Hassan Rouhani, have been ceding ground to radicals and conservatives, who stand by the principles of the Islamic revolution and the precepts of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. These “principlists” include Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who since leaving office in 2013, has shown himself as a critic of the policies of his successor, President Hassan Rouhani. The ex-president supported all anti-government actions (but not before he stepped down seven years ago!), and remains opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, signed in 2015. [2]

Ahmadinejad is particularly popular in small towns and rural areas, and for a good reason too, because his biography, as well as his populist rhetoric and image, appeal to a certain segment of the Iranian population.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born in October 1956, into the family of a poor blacksmith in the village of Aradan in the country’s northeastern Semnan province. His father, Ahmad, was a deeply religious Shiite Muslim, and his mother, Khanom, was a Sayyida, an honorable title given to those believed to be direct bloodline descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

The family moved to Tehran when Mahmoud was one year old. He was raised as a devout Muslim. Still a child, he already knew the Koran by heart, and at school he quickly gained the reputation of a hardworking and capable student.

In 1976, the would-be president entered Tehran’s prestigious University of Science and Technology, successfully graduating with the diploma of a transport engineer.

During his student years, he actively participated in the anti-Shah youth movement of a radical Islamic hue. After the Shah’s overthrow, Ahmadinejad, then a third-year student, joined the ultra-conservative Islamist Organization for Strengthening the Unity of Universities and Theological Schools. According to unconfirmed reports, he took part in the November 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. In 1980, he volunteered for the Iran-Iraq war as part of the IRGC and took part in a series of sabotage operations in northern and eastern Iraq. In that same year, he married his fellow student Azam al-Sadat Farahi, a mechanical engineer.

Upon his discharge from the army, he took up the career of a professional politician. In the late 80s, he headed the administrations of various cities in West Azerbaijan Province. In 1993 he was elected governor general of the newly-formed Ardabil Province, while simultaneously serving as an advisor to the Minister of Culture and Education of Iran, until the liberal reformer Mohammed Khatami removed him in 1997, whereupon he returned to teaching.

During that time, Ahmadinejad often visited the holy city of Qom to meet with Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, a radical representative of the Iranian clerical elite. Ayatollah Yazdi eventually became his spiritual mentor and played a significant role in his political career.

Six years later, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to politics, and in 2003, the Tehran Municipal Council elected him as city mayor. As mayor of the capital, he rolled back most of the liberal reforms implemented by his predecessors, tightened censorship, enforced Islamic morality, ordered the closure of all of the city’s Western fast food outlets, tightened Islamic norms in clothing and everyday life, instructing women to comply with the Islamic dress code, and men in public service to grow beards and wear short-sleeved shirts.

In June 2005, Ahmadinejad was elected president after running a populist campaign focused on social justice. In June 2009, he was re-elected for a second term in a tough tug-of-war with his political opponents. Ahmadinejad’s campaign rivals refused to accept his victory, claiming that electoral fraud had occurred during the voting. Anti-government protests and demonstrations, known as the “Green Movement,” ensued, but were suppressed.

For fairness’ sake, it should be noted that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has always maintained an ascetic lifestyle both in everyday life and in the positions of power that he held. He has never been embroiled in any corruption scandals - a rarity in modern-day Iran.

Observers, who have been following Ahmadinejad's activities, point to several surprising or shocking details of his life both as a politician and a high-ranking official, such as:

  • as president, Ahmadinejad took the bus to get to work;

  • his wife, Azam al-Sadat Farahi, worked as a cleaner in a Koranic school;

  • when asked by the US TV network Fox News what he usually said to himself when looking in the mirror in the morning, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replied: “Remember that you are nothing more than a simple servant.”

  • when Ahmadinejad first entered the presidential office, he surprised many by giving the pricey Persian carpets hanging on its walls to one of Tehran’s mosques and replacing them with ordinary cheap carpets;

  • upon his election as president, his property declaration included a 1977 Peugeot 504 car and a small house in one of the poorest districts of Tehran, inherited from his father 40 years earlier;

  • President Ahmadinejad also impressed his staff by bringing his breakfast to work in his briefcase every day, consisting of several cheese and olive oil sandwiches made by his wife;

  • during his tenure, any Cabinet minister, before being appointed to his post, was to sign a document, which, among other things, included a pledge not to enrich himself and make his and his relatives’ bank accounts open to public scrutiny;

  • after his resignation, Ahmadinejad refused the presidential pension, saying that he had worked not for a pension, but for the good of the people;

  • In his spare time, he likes to graze sheep and to help street sweepers with their job...

 

Well, this could have been just for show, and still… [3]

Pro-Ahmadinejad propaganda was playing up his asceticism and fairness, comparing (just as a hint though, because no one can be compared with the Imam!) his modesty and fair-mindedness with those of the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.

Then what are the characteristic features of the policy of President Ahmadinejad, the man who for eight years held the second highest position in the Islamic Republic of Iran? [4]

To answer this question, one needs to know exactly what country the president inherited in 2005 and the processes leading up to the situation, which then existed in Iran.

One should keep in mind the revolutionary upheavals, economic experiments of the Iranian version of military Communism [5] and the impact of the eight-year Iranian-Iraqi war that by the close of the 1980s had left the country in a state of socio-economic decline. The potential of the harsh system that distinguished Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic regime had been exhausted and this is something Iran’s clerical leadership realized full well. The very economic survival of the Islamic Republic was on the line now and speedy reforms were sorely needed.

It was at that critical point in time that pragmatists came to power - first, Hojat ol-Islam [6] Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989 - 1997), then – Hojat ol-Islam [7] Mohammad Khatami (1997 - 2005).

During the 16-year presidency of these two prominent leaders, despite all the contradictions and mistakes, deviations, failures and miscalculations, Iran gained strength, becoming a leading power in the Near and Middle East. Spiking oil and gas prices certainly helped, as oil export revenues quadrupled from $11 billion in 1998 to $40 billion in 2005. [8]

The national economy was looking up, investments were flowing in, and democratic reforms were on the rise. On the foreign policy front, Iran was emerging from the semi-blockade and self-isolation, opening up to the outside world, which had gradually improved the country’s image internationally. This certainly facilitated Iran’s involvement in the political and economic processes going on in the world, in a boost to the national economy.

However, for all the socio-economic gains of 16 years of reforms, they threatened the very foundations of the Khomeinist ideology, which they were supposed to save and strengthen. The reforms (whether their architects and builders wanted it or not) were actually taking the country and society away from the strategic course laid out by Ayatollah Khomeini.

This is something the radical conservative Iranian clergy and their secular associates simply could not allow. To maintain their power they sought the revival of Khomeini's ideas in a bid to reverse the policy of the two previous presidents.

Rafsanjani and Khatami – these two “Moors” of Iranian politics – had done their duty though, saving and strengthening the regime. They could go now, making way for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Formally speaking, President Ahmadinejad is a secular man, an engineer, but at the same time he sincerely considers himself a soldier and a direct messenger of the Messiah - the 12th hidden Imam Mahdi [9], and claims to be in constant mental contact with him. [10]

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first actions as president showed that he was firmly on the path laid out by Ayatollah Khomeini. Naturally, a return to the political and ideological fold of orthodox Khomeinism is impossible without the elimination of any sprouts of liberalism, especially when it comes to ideology. True to the precepts of Khomeini, Ahmadinejad banned Western music and movies, suppressed any signs of non-Islamic culture and essentially extended all the restrictions that he had previously introduced as mayor of Tehran, now on a national scale.

During his eight years in power, President Ahmadinejad, a native of the IRGC, did a lot to increase the Corps’ political and economic sway. Directly and indirectly, Ahmadinejad granted preferences to the IRGC in order to boost its commercial business assets. The Corps' commercial role is particularly evident in at least 229 major holdings and civilian companies. The IRGC dominates the country’s construction, energy, petrochemical, mining, engineering, transport, telecommunications, trade, insurance and banking sectors.

As a result of the IRGC’s economic expansion, initiated by Ahmadinejad, by 2015 the Corps already controlled 25% - 35% of the national economy and 25% of all capital. Nowadays, it is not only a powerful military-political, ideological and intelligence organization, but a significant financial and economic establishment too. [11]

The defense industry, also under the auspices of the IRGC, received a big boost during Ahmadinejad's presidency. In particular, the rocket industry has made a major headway in the development of new combat systems, including for launching satellites. In 2009, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Republic, Iran placed in orbit its first space satellite Omid (Hope) launched by a two-stage Safir-2 (Messenger-2) booster, thus joining the club of space-going powers.

The Iranian nuclear problem remains the most important factor influencing the situation in and around the Islamic Republic. Back in 2003, in an effort to solve this problem, President Khatami initiated "nuclear negotiations" with Germany, France and Britain, which were supervised from the Iranian side by the incumbent President Rouhani. Under President Khatami, Iran signed the Additional Protocol to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Although this document, which gives the IAEA additional access to Iranian nuclear facilities and provides for surprise checks, was not ratified by the Majlis, Khatami issued a directive, first to comply with its requirements, and, secondly, to suspend the country’s uranium enrichment work. This was done until 2006.

During the first months of his presidency, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nixed all the positive results, achieved by his predecessor, President Khatami, in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.

The country was now ramping up its nuclear ambitions. Mastering modern technologies, Iran had advanced so much in its IRGC-supervised nuclear program, that it was now able to create its own complete nuclear cycle, [12] primarily an industrial infrastructure for uranium enrichment, which became a cause of serious concern by the whole world. While in the early 2000s Iran had only 164 centrifuges, by 2013 their number had increased to almost 20,000.

The international community responded to this by ratcheting up pressure on Tehran, demanding that it ensure full transparency of its nuclear program and prove its entirely peaceful nature. The UN Security Council adopted six resolutions, four of which introduced sanctions against Iran.

Under Ahmadinejad Iran began to slide back into isolation. Unlike his predecessors, Rafsanjani and Khatami, Ahmadinejad stubbornly refused to seek any compromises and opted for a policy of confrontation, relying on a demonstration of force, both globally and on a regional level. The political tension around Iran sometimes escalated into military confrontation. Responding to outside provocations, the Ahmadinejad administration has repeatedly threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, which resulted in large US and allied naval concentrations close to Iran’s borders and pushed the situation to the brink of war. Meanwhile, the military tension around Iran continued to impact the political and economic situation inside the country and the regional security system as a whole. Quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, Ahmadinejad then said that "the Zionist regime must be wiped off the face of the earth, and with the help of divine power, the world will soon live without the United States and Israel."

President Ahmadinejad policy resulted in a cool in relations with the EU countries, which had traditionally been among the main trade and economic partners of Iran. Most other countries around the world were equally wary of building closer partnerships with Tehran.

The President increased the scale of Iran’s military and political activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf countries.

The resulting international isolation and the actions of Iran's opponents dealt a heavy blow to the Iranian economy, which by the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency presented a very serious problem. Despite the fact that during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in power Iran had earned $1 trillion 200 billion, half of that as oil revenues, this did not prevent the country from sliding into a crisis. [13]

The economic crisis did not come as a result of Western sanctions alone though. Under President Ahmadinejad reformers and moderate conservative traditionalists were being gradually phased out from the state apparatus with radicals actively taking over all the three branches of power in the country.

All this was seen by many as an attempt by Ahmadinejad to limit the power and influence of the first generation of Islamic revolutionaries and the clergy and to create a new political and business elite by promoting the current and former relatively young employees of the IRGC to government posts, and to provide state assistance to IRGC-affiliated companies and organizations.   This led to the security forces’ increased interference in the political life of the country – something Ayatollah Khomeini warned against in his political testament. [14]

Simultaneously, Ahmadinejad sought additional powers as president and was trying to weaken parliamentary control over the executive branch and other power agencies, much to the chagrin of traditionalist conservatives who hated to see any weakening of their positions.

Ahmadinejad's all-stops-out ambitions were apparently the reason why his relations with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei strained in the final years of his presidency, which ultimately led to the political isolation of Ahmadinejad and his associates after 2013, and prevented him from running again in 2017.

However, the situation in and around Iran has since changed very significantly. The virtual collapse of the JCPOA, aggressive US sanctions, falling oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic that hit Iran hard have set the stage for a political comeback by anti-Rouhani “principlists,” who scored a crushing victory in the February 2020 parliamentary elections, winning 223 out of 290 seats in the Majlis.

The moderate speaker Ali Larijani left the Majlis, replaced by IRGC General Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. His two deputies are former members of Ahmadinejad’s government. According to observers, 60 members of the new Iranian parliament are people close to Ahmadinejad. [15]

Almost all the most important positions are now in the hands of radicals, some of them seen as potential presidential candidates, such as Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who heads the most radical conservative camp in Iranian politics, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (NSC) Rear Admiral of the IRGC Ali Shamkhani, and Secretary of the Council of Political Expediency, former commander-in-chief of the IRGC, General Mohsen Rezayi.

There may be other conservative presidential hopefuls now in the making, of course, but the abovementioned politicians are unlikely to exchange their high-ranking positions for the “lose-lose” post of president. After all, it is clear that the current economic crisis in Iran will not end any time soon and voters will inevitably fault the president for this. In addition, the conservatives want to prevent anything that might damage the popularity of Ebrahim Raisi, who is reportedly being groomed by them for the position of the country’s next Supreme Leader. [16]

The situation apparently favors Ahmadinejad, with many local analysts noting that "the general trend in domestic politics increasingly resembles the methods and style of Ahmadinejad."

Reformist politician Hossein Khanizadeh believes that Ahmadinejad will run for president: "With the election of the 11th parliament, Ahmadinejad's supporters are negotiating with the Guardian Council (GC) [17] about his possible participation in the elections." An unnamed ally of the ex-president clarified that “the issue is past mediation and is now in the stage of direct discussion. Ahmadinejad has met with a number of GC members to discuss his candidacy for the presidential elections.” [19]

That being said, many in the conservative camp have fresh memories of President Ahmadinejad’s waywardness. Conservative lawmaker Yakub Reza-zadeh flatly rejects the possibility of the ex-president's participation in next year’s elections. He believes that Ahmadinejad has no place on the political stage after he repeatedly voiced his disobedience with the Supreme Leader.

“When Ahmadinejad decided not to follow the recommendation of the rahbar - Ayatollah Khamenei - and took part in the 2017 elections, Ahmad Janati (the head of the GC) said that this would lead to unrest. How can a person who does not obey the orders of the leader of the revolution and provokes unrest in the country become president again? ” Reza-zadeh wondered. [20]

With the presidential election nine months away now, the conservative-radical bloc is quite likely to put forward a new candidate. As of now, the candidacy of ex-President Ahmadinejad looks pretty real.

The only reason why the author has analyzed in such great detail the personal traits of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his policies as president is because if he is elected again, this would undoubtedly determine the main trends and features of the country’s foreign and domestic policy, which, in turn, would result in an across-the-board metamorphosis of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is something we need to prepare for.

The future of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his participation in the 2021 presidential race certainly depends on the decision by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and, of course, on how the situation in and around Iran will develop in the coming months.

 

The views of the author are his own and may not necessarily reflect the position of the Editorial Board. 

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[1] Yulia Druzik. Union of Lion and Dragon. RT website. July 23, 2020. URL: https://russian.rt.com/opinion/767126-yuzik-kitai-ssha-iran

[2] EaDaily website. 03.09.2019.  URL: https://eadaily.com/ru/news/2019/09/03/eks-prezident-irana-ahmadinezhad-ya-by-ne-zaklyuchil-yadernuyu-sdelku. NA of Azerbaijan Haqqin.az. 03.09.2019. URL: https://haqqin.az/news/157404

[3] NA of Armenia Asekose. 14.11.2016. URL: http://asekose.am/ru/

[4] President of the IRI is not the head of state. The head of state is the Supreme Leader (rahbar) – a religious figure elected for life by a council of 86 top clerics. The President of Iran carries out the decrees of the Supreme Leader and performs the duties of Prime Minister. He is elected for maximum two consecutive four-year terms.

[5] Khomeinist version of economy of military communism.

[6] a religious title, one step below that of Ayatollah.

[7] Hojat ol-Islam Rafsanjani later became Ayatollah.

[8] Ramis Yunusov. Iran: 30 years without Shah. Kontinent 4u website. 06.03.2009. URL: https://www.kontinent.org/iran-30-let-bez-shaxa/

[9] В 975 A.D., seven-year-old Abu-l-Qasim Mohammad bin al-Hasan al-Mahdi proclaimed himself the 12th Imam, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, but later disappeared and has since been considered as the “hidden Imam.” Though they revering him as a Messiah, Shiites call him Mohammad al-Mahdi and believe that sooner or later he will re-emerge to the world and will rule it for seven years and will later lead the good forces, who, in their fight against the evil forces of the Islamic version of Apocalypse, which will result in the “end of days,” and will ultimately bring about the dawn of an era of “peace and justice.”

[10] Maurizio Molinari. Ahmadinejad thinks sees himself as the new Messiah. La Stampa (Italy). InoPressa. 18.01.2006. URL: https://www.inopressa.ru/article/18Jan2006/lastampa/iran.html

[11] See: V.I. Sazhin “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – a state within a state.” “Outlines of global transformations: politics, economics, law” magazine, 2017, 10 (3). pp. 83-109.

[12] The full nuclear cycle includes: mining of uranium ore, ore concentration and leaching of uranium from ore. The uranium-containing solution is concentrated, converting it into a "yellow cake", which is the starting component of the nuclear fuel cycle. Enrichment is brought to the required level (up to 3%-19.75% for the subsequent manufacture of fuel cells for research and nuclear power plants, up to 90%-95% for a nuclear warhead). Spent fuel is either processed (if possible) for further use or stored with subsequent placement in special repositories.

[13] D. Khatynoglu. Economic slogans of Iranian presidential candidates. NA of Azerbaijan. Day.Az. 11.06.2013. URL: https://news.day.az/world/407826.htm

[14] For more see Y.V. Dunaeva. “Political testament of Imam Khomeini: challenges and threats to Islamic regime.” — “30th anniversary of the Islamic Republic of Iran: main results and prospects for development.” Nauka, 2009. pp. 74-81.

[15] Ahmadinejad’s dreams: can someone who disobeyed Khamenei’s orders become Iran’s next president?” Sasapost website (Egypt). 25.07.2020. URL: https://www.sasapost.com/will-ahmadinejad-become-president-of-iran-again/

[16] Yulia Yuzik. “The comeback of Ahmadinejad.” RT website. 12.06.2020. – URL: https://russian.rt.com/opinion/754543-yuzik-iran-ahmadinezhad

[17] The Guardian Council (GC) consists of 12 members, six of whom are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The other six members are appointed by the parliament on the Chief Justice’s recommendation. The GC approves candidates for key posts, including for the presidency, Cabinet ministers and MPs. The Council’s main duty is checking the proposed bills’ compliance with Islamic law. In case of any deviations from Sharia law, a bill is sent back for adjustments. The Council also has the power of veto on any decision made by the Majlis. 

[18] Ahmadinejad’s dreams: can someone who disobeyed Khamenei’s orders become Iran’s next president?”

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.