On Wednesday, April 12, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registered as a candidate for the forthcoming presidential election, due to take place on May 19. The move, which was in direct contradiction to the wishes of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, immediately hit headlines around the globe. 

On August 30, 2016, Khamenei had explicitly forbidden Ahmadinejad, who was the country’s president from 2005 until 2013, from running. For good measure, Khamenei publicly repeated his objections on September 26 — though he stopped short of mentioning Ahmadinejad directly. The announcement surprised many in Iran, who assumed the leader would not choose to be so open about his views.

But now they are surprised for a different reason — that Ahmadinejad has dared to publicly go against Khamenei’s wishes. The move is particularly surprising given that on September 27, 2016, a day after Khamenei spoke against his plans to run for office, Ahmadinejad, in a moment of apparent meekness, wrote: “Following the wishes of the Honorable Leader of the Revolution, I have no plan to participate in next year’s election.” And on February 11, 2017, he even went so far as to state that he would not be putting his support behind any presidential candidate. The promise turned out to be a gesture of formality, and, only a few days later, Ahmadinejad declared his support for his former deputy, Hamid Baghaei, when Baghaei announced his own intentions to run. Today, Baghaei and Ahmadinejad arrived at the Election Board to register together.

Familiar Territory

As IranWire recently reported, Ahmadinejad has tried to defy Khamenei in public before. In the summer of 2009, Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as his first vice president, going against the wishes of the Supreme Leader. The then president disregarded private warnings from Khamenei, and forced the supreme leader to publicly veto the appointment. Eventually, Ahmadinejad was forced to give in and removed Mashaei.

Ahmadinejad called for the resignation of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi in April 2011, again ignoring Khamenei’s warnings. Another public statement from the Supreme Leader ensued, and Khamenei refused to accept Moslehi’s resignation. In what was widely described as a tantrum, Ahmadinejad responded by confining himself to his home for 11 days. Ahmadinejad’s conservative colleagues condemned his retaliation, and some parliamentarians called for him to be impeached. Ahmadinejad was forced to return to work, and withdrew his demand for Moslehi to resign. 

End of Ahmadinejad?

Ahmadinejad’s registration as a presidential candidate draws comparisons with this 11-day temper tantrum, but the most recent move is certain to result in more serious consequences for him. He will find himself to be much lonelier in Iran’s political arena this time around. Mehdi Koochakzadeh, a former member of parliament who was once a staunch supporter of Ahmadinejad, reacted to the news that he had registered by announcing that he no longer believed Ahmadinejad to be a follower of “true Islam.” Elias Naderan, another former representative, wrote: “End of Ahmadinejad!”

But Ahmadinejad has his reasons for putting himself forward. As the Persian expression goes, he is threatening death so that his political colleagues (and perhaps the public) will be happy with a fever. The Guardian Council is responsible for qualifying or disqualifying registered candidates. Ahmadinejad was certain the council would disqualify Baghaei, so he declared his candidacy so that he had more to play with when it came to bargaining with the Guardian Council, thereby increasing the chances that they would qualify Baghaei. In other words, Ahmadinejad is telling Iran’s conservative principlists, the Guardian Council and even the Supreme Leader that they must qualify Baghaei if they want to prevent Ahmadinejad from running. Here he is not only thinking about the outcome of the election. Ahmadinejad wants the qualification of Baghaei to serve as an exoneration of his administration and to debunk the “lies” about his government, from accusations of mismanagement of the country’s affairs to corruption.

“I am Keeping my Promise”

But there is something else. Baghaei utterly lacks charisma and enjoys little popularity among the Iranian public. As hard as he has tried, the media have paid him little attention. Ahmadinejad, as he has said more than once, believes he appeals to a large number of voters — and he does not want their votes to be cast for any candidate but Baghaei. His plan is to stay in the running for a while, campaign and then quit, and immediately throw his support behind Baghaei. He believes this will greatly enhance Baghaei’s chances of winning the presidency. “I am standing by my promise,” Ahmadinejad said today after registering with the Board of Elections. “My registration is only out of support for Baghaei.”

But what if his new tactic fails and Baghaei is still disqualified? Prior to today’s news, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the Guardian Council’s spokesman, had said the Supreme Leader’s “recommendation” to Ahmadinejad could “be taken as a legal order,” but he also expressed doubts that Ahmadinejad genuinely wished to put himself forward. This statement indicates that the Guardian Council is likely to disqualify Ahmadinejad. Yet this would be a costly decision that would reflect very badly on the regime, considering his two-term presidency, and the fact that, in 2009 Khamenei and the regime did everything they could to help him against the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. At the same time, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified from running back in 2013, which also proved to be damaging. The situation the regime finds itself in now cannot be any worse than that. 

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