It’s been easy for some of Iran’s biggest political players and pundits to dismiss claims that former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could re-emerge on the political stage with any actual serious impact. Yet there is pretty close parallel that continues to hit the headlines across the globe: the unpredictable and often unbelievable rise of Donald Trump.

“I can say with confidence that if Ahmadinejad runs again, no principalist will support him,” said reformist activist Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of former president Mohammad Khatami, speaking to the Islamic Republic News Agency recently. But is that merely wishful thinking? Could Ahmadinejad really be on his way back, and in a big way?  

It wasn’t so long ago, way back at the beginning of US presidential election campaign, that very similar doubts were being expressed about Donald Trump. Many Republicans refused to support him, or so said political analysts, commentators and forecasters. But this has all changed, and some surveys indicate that he has a good chance to beat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Prominent Republicans who spoke out against Trump at the beginning appeared to have changed their minds, and have put their weight behind Trump, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. Their reason is simple enough: They do not want to see Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat in the White House.

In Iran, principalists —  conservative politicians who consider themselves to be closely aligned with the original values that spurred on the Islamic Revolution —  are currently in flux. The crisis is real, with Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani recently admitting he had tried to pull together a coalition that united such prominent conservative figures as former speaker and interior minister Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, former foreign minister and advisor to the supreme leader, Ali Akbar Velayati and the former attorney general, Ayatollah Morteza Moghtadai, without success. 

For prominent principalists, the current alliances are just not working. In fact, none of them were invited to feed into Larijani’s vision: not temporary Tehran Friday Prayers leader and chairman of Combatant Clergy Association Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani, who leads moderate principalists, or hardliner Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, or other hardliner clerics including former Judiciary Chief Mohammad Yazdi and Ahmad Jannati, who succeeded Yazdi as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts. Conservative media might like the idea of former nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad, Saeed Jalili, or even the more moderate Mohsen Rezaee, the Revolutionary Guards commander. But they don’t seem to be contenders for uniting the group — and nor do any other prominent principalist figures — not Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor, or Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, former speaker of the parliament. Other prominent figures, including Quds general Ghasem Soleimani, former heavyweight Revolutionary Guards figure Parviz Fattah, hardliner Alireza Zakani and Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, who has been actually pushing the idea of an inclusive principalist party, also seem to be somewhat out of the frame.

So what if Iran went “American style,” and principalists decided that, more than anything else, they want to defeat President Hassan Rouhani, and prevent a reformist coming into power? 


Could Division Pave a Way for Ahmadinejad?

The simple way of classifying these influential principalist figures is to split them into groups of hardliners and moderates. But not everyone fits into these neat groups — certainly not Mohsen Rezai, Parviz Fattah, Ghasem Soleimani, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Another way of looking at them is by giving them the labels anti-Rouhani moderates, pro-Rouhani moderates and hardliners — but again, Ahmadinejad, Fattah and Soleimani find themselves far outside these definitions. 

Key Iranian principalists control their own fiefdoms to an extent. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no exception, despite his international and domestic reputation, and the fact that many politicians and members of the public equate his presidency with some of the worst levels of corruption modern day Iran has seen.

Despite the fact that the former president enjoys this very concentrated support, none of the leading 16 principalist figures — a good 80 percent of the country’s most influential conservatives — would agree to support Ahmadinejad publicly. And a number of moderate principalists are actually likely to stand by Hassan Rouhani. 

Even if, by a very slight chance, the supreme leader asks Ahmadinejad to run for president, many principalists would either refuse to accept it or simply stay silent.

“A failed Figure”

Ali Larijani recently referred to Ahmadinejad as a failed figure. People have no interest in an Ahmadinejad candidacy, he said. Many principalists even want Ahmadinejad to stand trial for crimes committed during his presidency. They say they can track current divisions among the group back to his reign. The Iranian public may assume that principalists still largely support Ahmadinejad , but in fact, they blame him for their own defeats and view any future alliance with him as toxic, and a block to their credibility, not least because of the call for him to pay for his legacy of incompetence and corruption. Furthermore, many accuse him of not being loyal to the supreme leader, and of disrespecting him.  

So any about-face or renewed support for Ahmadinejad would mean another political defeat for principalists. 

Ruhollah Hosseinian, Ahmadinejad’s best-known hardliner supporter among the clergy, has repeatedly emphasized that Ahmadinejad does not need the support of the principalists to run for the presidency, or even to win the elections. So, unlike Trump, Ahmadinejad could potentially be victorious with just the support of his own constituency. Like Trump, he has the gift of influencing public opinion and stands out on the political scene.

In the past, Ahmadinejad has claimed his victories in 2005 and 2009 were ushered in without the full support of principalists, though this has never been properly  scrutinized. In both elections principalist media gave him a platform and military institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij provided him with logistical services.

Ahmadinejad’s plan to run will possibly be a good litmus test for his claim that he doesn’t need principalist support. Certainly, his core supporters are already getting ready. His political meetings, his visits to provinces and stories published by media outlets with close ties to him are all geared toward sending the message that it is the principalists who need Ahmadinejad, not the other way around. These supporters emphasize that if principalists want to get rid of Hassan Rouhani as president, they will need to join together —  hoping that when both arguments are tied together they will succeed in forcing Ahmadinejad on the principalists.

But for many, this formula will never work. So despite apparent similarities — from making outrageous statements to an ability to win over certain sections of the political establishment because of the unsavoury nature of what else is on offer — for the moment Ahmadinejad has little chance of becoming Iran’s Donald Trump.

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