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Ahmadinejad’s burning bridges

President’s animosity with political elites threatens interesting exit

by Gareth Smyth

Nowruz, or new year, makes much of March in Iran a joyful celebration of renewal, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is feeling the rising sap. The president was welcomed back from a visit to Egypt last month by chanting supporters waving banners saying “Viva spring”.The president’s opponents, however, were quick to smell a rat. Eagerly awaiting the end of Ahmadinejad’s second term, they sensed the president was launching a campaign in favor of one of his allies for the presidential poll scheduled for June 14.

Chief suspect is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, and indeed the presidential aide emerged alongside Ahmadinejad to accept the adulation at the airport as the pair returned from an Islamic summit. While Mashaei reportedly regards ‘viva spring’ as a reference to the awaited return of the 12 Shia Imams, in occultation since the year 873 AD (Gregorian), many in Tehran see only an election slogan.

Ahmadinejad is constitutionally ineligible for a third consecutive term but he appears determined not to leave office sheepishly. A political outsider who came from relative obscurity to win the 2005 election, he has since been at loggerheads with Parliament and has alienated many previous allies in the conservative camp. From the time Ahmadinejad challenged supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s authority in 2010 and 2011, his critics have labeled him and his entourage a “deviant current”. When Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi said he was “more than 90 percent certain” that Ahmadinejad had “been put under a spell” — the ayatollah did not know if it was “hypnotism or relations with yogis” — few doubted that the magician            was Mashaei.

The open clash with Khamenei in 2011 — when the ayatollah reinstated the intelligence minister after Ahmadinejad forced his resignation — was one the president was bound to lose. After all, supporters of Iran’s Islamic system know its main pillar is velayat-e faqih, which by definition gives the leader pre-eminence.

That should have been the end of the story. But, remarkably, Ahmadinejad has kept going. And in doing so, a number of things have happened that are unprecedented in the Islamic Republic.

Prior to his Egypt trip, the president had a noisy spat in Parliament with the speaker Ali Larijani, where each openly accused the other of ill-doing. The row, as Parliament prepared to dismiss Ahmadinejad’s labor minister, was widely aired on Iranian news websites. This was pure theater as the president aired a recording allegedly showing Larijani’s brother, Fazel, offering political favors to Saeed Mortazavi, head of the Social Security Organization, to smooth deals in the petrochemical and other sectors. Nor was that the end of it: less than two weeks later, the website Tabnak aired footage said to be Ahmadinejad’s followers shouting down a speech by Larijani in Qom. And this all happened despite January’s warning from Khamenei that it would be “treason” for anyone to take their “differences to the public” in the run-up to June’s election.

As an outsider, Ahmadinejad feels looked down upon by a network of established families active in business, politics and religion. Larijani is part of an ‘insider’ family — himself the son and son-in-law of ayatollahs. One of Larijani’s other brothers, Sadegh, heads the judiciary and is resented by Ahmadinejad after the arrest of two allies: a press advisor imprisoned in September for six months, and Mortazavi, who was jailed for two days in early February. It all adds up to a springtime headache for Khamenei, already facing a challenge in managing June’s poll, which comes four years after mass unrest followed Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election. A high turnout and the election of a moderate conservative would be a fillip for Khamenei in the face of tightening US-led sanctions — ostensibly over Iran’s nuclear program — that have halved oil exports in a year. 

Help could be at hand in that the Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog, may well bar Mashaei from running in June. But speculation is rife in Tehran that Ahmadinejad has further information on ‘insider’ corruption that he acquired during his seven years in office.  

That could be extremely embarrassing for Khamenei and his hopes for the poll, which in turn prompts further speculation in Tehran.  What might Ahmadinejad want in return for going quietly into the night? Or would he gain more satisfaction — and cement his place in history — by settling some scores?



Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for nearly two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran

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Gareth Smyth

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for more than two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran.

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