Iran’s long-running economic recession has paved the way for former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attempt a return to the political scene. Ahmadinejad, it seems, hopes to take advantage of an ongoing rift between the powerful and conservative Revolutionary Guards, with which he enjoys close relations, and President Hassan Rouhani’s reformist-backed, pro-business government. Ahmadinejad's return might be good news for the Guards, but it would do Iran's economy lasting damage.
In March, Ahmadinejad used Nowruz, the Iranian New Year holidays, to begin his presidential campaign for spring 2017. Over the holidays, Ahmadinejad made a well-publicized trip to Shalamcheh, a famous battlefield upon which thousands perished during the Iran-Iraq War. Ahmadinejad invoked emotional memories of the war, during which Iran was isolated from most of the world, to challenge Iranians' enthusiasm for rapprochement with the West.
Ahmadinejad then traveled to Amol, a city by the Caspian Sea, where he followed the same populist playbook. He collected petitions and letters asking for his assistance, talked about “martyrs” killed in the war, and met their families. Ultraconservatives and the media outlets supporting them could not hide their joy. Javan Daily and the Nasim News Agency fully endorsed Ahmadinejad's message. Both outlets are close to the Revolutionary Guards, whose powerful role in Iran’s economy reached new heights during Ahmadinejad’s two-term administration from 2005 to 2013.
The recession from which Iran’s economy suffers started during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, and intensified largely due to his policies. International sanctions against Iran's secretive nuclear program were a major factor, as were high inflation and declining oil revenues. Iranians suffered rising prices as jobs disappeared. Ahmadinejad and his cronies brought corruption and suspicious dealings to a new level within Iran’s institutions, as Ahmadinejad awarded no-bid government contracts and billions in loans to the Revolutionary Guards.
Today, corruption remains a major barrier to economic development and prosperity in Iran. Rouhani’s administration fears it cannot fight corruption without destabilizing the country. Ahmadinejad is betting that his own legacy as president has corrupted Iran enough to prevent the Rouhani administration from saving the economy.
There are early signs that Ahmadinejad could get his wish. Because the Revolutionary Guards remain under US sanctions and has such far-reaching power within Iran's economy, many western companies fear unknowingly doing business with Guards-linked companies. It is impossible to know how many such companies have already decided that the Revolutionary Guards' role in Iran's economy makes Iran too risky for business.
Apart from scaring off even more investors, Ahmadinejad's return would vindicate those skeptics who argued ahead of last year's nuclear deal that even if Hassan Rouhani is a rational actor, Iran’s regime is not.
Ahmadinejad’s supporters try to undermine Rouhani by fanning expectations of the economic benefits of the nuclear deal — which have been slow to manifest — or by denying the likelihood of economic uplift altogether. In the process, Ahmadinejad sows seeds of despair across Iran. His main goal is to convince Iranians that foreign investors won’t come, or that if they do come, they won’t create jobs or opportunities.
Ahmadinejad and his supporters rely upon many of the same slogans they used ahead of Iran’s 2005 elections. Ahmadinejad promises that his administration will be a government of the underprivileged, and will protect the legacy of wartime "martyrs." Ahmadinejad and his supporters do not mention that the underprivileged suffered most during his presidency when prices increased by more than 60 percent. Ahmadinejad blames his poor economic performance on western plots and conspiracies.
The Revolutionary Guards, meanwhile, may be using Ahmadinejad and his ambitions to remind Rouhani that his time as president could expire soon. The powerful army is effectively serving notice that there are politicians willing to allow them free reign in Iran's economy in exchange for access to the presidential palace. The Guards do not appear to fear the economic cost of having someone like Ahmadinejad back on the political scene. On the contrary, the political establishment in Iran, particularly the Revolutionary Guards and its ultra-conservative allies, have shown over decades that they prefer to dominate an isolated and depressed economy.
Ahmadinejad is taking advantage of the establishment's deep-rooted reluctance to join the global economy. While his supporters at home and abroad might call this anti-imperialism, Ahmadinejad’s return to politics will only mean devastation for Iran. Ahmadinejad is not coming to save Iran or the Iranian people. As always, he hopes for a comeback amid mounting economic challenges. In the meantime, Iran’s political establishment is getting ready to foot the bill — or rather make Iranians pay —for his return.