Plans to usher former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back into the political mainstream are underway, IranWire has learned.
According to handwritten minutes obtained by IranWire, 57 allies and supporters from Fars province met at the Hafezieh Sports Complex in Shiraz on April 16 to begin work to reinstate the former president to parliament. A government official told the official Islamic Republic News Agency that the meeting went ahead without required authorization and seemed to contravene election guidelines, which forbid campaigning in government buildings.
Former governors and provincial officials met to establish a “core” group in Fars province to lend their efforts to Ahmadinejad’s candidacy for the 2016 parliamentary elections, which take place on February 25, 2016. Among them was Ebrahim Azizi, who was once the provincial governor of Hormozgan and a former commander of the Basij paramilitary force’s mobilization unit. His presence could indicate a level of enthusiasm among Iran’s military elite to see a revival of Ahmadinejad’s influence. It certainly suggests military influence behind the scenes.
The Cultural Advisor to the Physical Education Bureau in Fars, a close Ahmadinejad ally in the province, was said to have organized the conference. The majority of those at the meeting had previously worked in Ahmadinejad’s administration. One of Ahmadinejad’s former advisors, Mehdi Kalhor, took part, as did a former Morteza Tamaddon, the former governor of Tehran province.
On April 19, IRNA reported that the Shiraz meeting was “held without a permit and without coordination with responsible authorities,” quoting a relevant official. “Holding such gatherings without permit and coordination is illegal and the organizers have committed an offense.” The official emphasized that “since such a gathering can function as an elections campaign it is illegal to hold it in a government-owned facility. The matter is being pursued by the Bureau of Sports and Youth in Fars.”
The public relations office of the bureau confirmed the report but denied it had been informed about the gathering.
A Plan Unfolds
Central to the meeting was a “seven-plank platform,” or strategy, introduced by Kalhor and Tamaddon. The strategy appears to acknowledge the considerable obstacles an Ahmadinejad campaign might face in its efforts to regain political ground. “We will participate in the elections, but considering the damage that has been done, there is a lot of work to do,” the notes said.
“Ahmadinejad feels he is duty-bound. We will not bargain with any party or group,” the meeting notes went on. This is an apparent response to recent rumors that Ahmadinejad might be willing to form a coalition with groups affiliated with the large hardliner umbrella initiative, the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability, though most hardliners have rejected this claim.
According to the outlines of the strategy, Fars is the18th province to have discussed plans to elect Ahmadinejad to parliament. In recent months, some sections of the Iranian media have accused Ahmadinejad’s supporters of employing stealth to ensure his campaign advances – notes from the meeting obtained by IranWire seem to confirm this.
The campaign targets a particular section of the Iranian electorate: people on low incomes and those who live in small villages. Anyone who has followed the political career of Ahmadinejad will be familiar with this tactic, which has served well as an effective propaganda strategy. It remains to be seen whether this well-worn approach will be effective in the parliamentary elections. The Shiraz notes stress the importance of “a new approach, different from that in the past” — suggesting that old tricks may not necessarily be enough to create the political revival the Ahmadinejad camp desires.
On social media and online forums, some supporters have also called for a change, highlighting some of Ahmadinejad’s most damaging mistakes. One analysis points to Ahmadinejad’s failing when it comes to public discourse and concludes that he should have paid more attention to “freedom” in addition to “justice” when he was in power.
Links to the people, religious outings and keeping “friendly forces” on side
Ahmadinejad has endeavored to keep his direct links to the people — answering their letters and boosting his image in the media. He regularly attends religious ceremonies, and often speaks publicly about his favorite topics: the return of the Twelfth Shia Imam and the End of Time and the evil nature of Israel and the United States.
The minutes from the Shiraz meeting also highlight the importance of keeping “friendly forces” in official positions, so that they can be used to the campaign’s advantage. Since Hassan Rouhani was elected as president in 2013, reformists have been quick to criticize the fact that many officials affiliated with Ahmadinejad’s administration have remained in their jobs in the government’s executive branch. Even former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Rouhani’s staunchest supporters, has taken issue with this. The Rouhani administration has not responded directly to these criticisms.
All elections are at some level fought on a local basis. In this case, the smaller the electoral arena is, the more ethnic and tribal the competition becomes. There is good reason to believe that the attention on the economically underprivileged class — the current focal point for Ahmadinejad and his supporters — will shift as the campaign moves on, not least because it will be difficult to target such a huge group with a one-line slogan or single-issue approach to electioneering.
According to the notes of April 16, “a number of religious authorities have asked Ahmadinejad to stay in the [political] arena.” Ahmadinejad’s closest ally in these ranks is Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former head of the Iranian Judiciary. Though his affinity for Ahmadinejad and his policies have always been clear, in recent years, Shahroudi has kept his distance, separating himself from the fallout of the former president’s reign and the political style that accompanied this demise. He is unlikely to shift his allegiance any time soon, but it is widely understood that the ayatollah has distinct ambitions for his brand of religion and politics.
At the Shiraz gathering, eight people were elected to Ahmadinejad’s central committee in Fars province. It is not known whether the same sort of appointments took place in the other 18 provincial meetings. If one assumes so, then at least 144 people have put their support behind the former president.
According to Shia lore, when the Twelfth Imam, the Shi’a Messiah, returns, he will be accompanied by 313 supporters. Currently, Ahmadinejad falls short of that number — but it is safe to assume that he is on his way back to Iran’s political center stage.