You’re listening to Iran’s Weekly Wire; I’m Roland Elliott Brown.
This week, IranWire reported exclusively that Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is trying to get back into politics.
Outsiders remember him as the holocaust denier who loved to get on the mic at the United Nations. Inside Iran, he is remembered as the human wrecking ball who smashed the economy, human rights, and diplomatic prospects.
And almost everyone believes, with good reason, that he stole Iran’s 2009 election. Last week, 57 of his supporters held a meeting at a sports center in the southern city of Shiraz.
A source within Ahmadinejad’s camp, who has asked to remain anonymous, leaked handwritten minutes to IranWire. The notes described a plan to polish Ahmadinejad’s image in time for the parliamentary elections in 2016.
So does Ahmadinejad really stand a chance of making a comeback?
I asked Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation what he made of Ahmadinejad’s ambitions now.
[Alireza Nader] Ahmadinejad can't stand being away from the spotlight. He thinks of himself as a figure of consequence, and so this might be an effort to get back into politics. There is no doubt Ahmadinejad still has supporters inside Iran. There are people who still respect him, but we have to remember that his authority as president, as a political figure in Iran has really diminished because of his performance. A lot of Iranians, even those within the political system, the elite, blame Ahmadinejad for Iran’s ills due to his mismanagement of the economy, his nuclear policy, and they blame him for the divisions that have plagued Iran, especially since the 2009 presidential elections. So Ahmadinejad, while he may have still some bases of support remains a very controversial figure within Iran.
I also spoke to Hooman Majd, a journalist who wrote three books about Iran during Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
[Hooman Majd]I know there has been a lot of talk about a political comeback, and he's so... shameless is probably the best word for him. He's so shameless that he probably will try to make a political comeback both in in terms of whether it's in the parliamentary elections or whether it's even the presidential elections, but I just don't see how he's going to get past the supreme leader at this point, who does not want him back, clearly.
In the Islamic Republic, no one gets into a position of power without the backing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Even so, there were some familiar faces at the Shiraz meeting.
One of Ahmadinejad’s top advisors, Mehdi Kalhor was there, and so was Morteza Tamaddon, the former governor of Tehran province.
Another notable guest was Ebrahim Azizi, a former commander of the Basij, which is a government-backed paramilitary group known for busting the heads of Iranian protestors.
So is there a desire on the part of Iran’s security establishment to revive Ahmadinejad’s career? Hooman Majd.
[Hooman Majd] He has some fans, yes, and he has some supporters, but I think even the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij who he tried to cultivate during his, particularly in his second term, I think even they were just at the end of the day, kind of burnt out on him.
But if Iran’s security forces don’t support him, what about the so-called “hardliners” in government, who disapprove of Iran’s new diplomatic efforts under President Hassan Rouhani? Hooman Majd again.
[Hooman Majd] If you think about all the hardliners who have objected to Rouhani’s policies, including even the nuclear deal, not one of them has ever invoked Ahmadinejad's name. No one has suggested that Ahmadinejad was better in dealing, for example, in the nuclear issue. So I don't see where he has support among the hardliners. he certainly doesn’t get mentioned by them.
I also spoke to Kasra Naji, a BBC Persian correspondent who published a biography of Ahmadinejad in 2007. I asked him why Ahmadinejad still has a loyal core of supporters, now that he’s got so many powerful people aligned against him.
[Kasra Naji] Why are they so loyal is a good question. I would have thought these people, a lot of them probably belong to a particular brand of Shiite Islam, something emerging as a sect.
Ahmadinejad, after all, always claimed to be something more than just a politician. He claimed to have a special relationship with a messianic figure in Shiite Islam called the 12th Imam.
This made him an outsider, and makes him attractive to some people on the fringes of religious and political life.
Ahmadinejad was also a follower of an extreme cleric, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi. The two men are not exactly close these days, but their supporters overlap.
[Kasra Naji] within that sort of group of people there is a subsection of those people who believe in an early return of the Shiites’ 12th Imam, the hidden Imam, who is believed to come back at one point to establish justice on earth, that kind of thing. So they are close to that way of thinking, that he will come back sooner rather than later. So they are connected not only by their political activities together with Ahmadinejad, but also in their religious beliefs.
Ahmadinejad’s claims about the 12th Imam were part of a populist strategy. And it kind of worked for him. Here’s Hooman Majd.
[Hooman Majd] That's what he think ties him closer to the common man, that was one of the things that the clerics objected to and he was summoned a few times to Qom and told to stop talking about it because you're not supposed to talk about it, you're not supposed to talk about the hidden Imam arriving any time soon, it's not for man to decide that, you notice none of the ayatollahs ever talk about it. That’s one of the things that actually caused him trouble with some of the clerics. But he doesn’t seem to care. His attitude is that the clerics are actually not to be trusted that they're corrupt, and the common man has as much connection to god as they do. I think he’ll continue that. That's one of the things that got him some popularity, his objection to the clerics having exclusive access to religious theory.
Ahmadinejad’s view of religion is deeply subversive. He was the first and only non-cleric to become president of Iran since 1979, and he was always more of a populist than a theocrat.
And as a populist, he had a knack for working crowds in poor areas, where he promised housing and monthly cash payments. Those crowds will remember him well. Here’s Kasra Naji.
[Kasra Naji] Also don’t forget that he has brand recognition in Iran when it comes to election time for parliamentary elections. I would have thought his supporters will use his name in provinces, in villages, in remote places to sort of use that brand recognition to pull votes. That is still there.
I also asked how Ahmadinejad left his relationship with the poor.
[Kasra Naji] High and dry I’m afraid, because when he was there, some people benefitted, but when he left, toward to the end of his term his promises turned to hollow promises, and hardly he managed to make good on his promises. Many of his projects have fallen by the wayside, his big projects about for example building homes on a massive scale, that hasn't come to anything at all and some places where they actually built homes, the homes are empty, left in these rural areas because there are no services, electricity, water connected to them. So on the whole, his legacy is pretty dismal, actually, for the poor. These days I hear that a lot of people still have faith in him and go outside his home on a daily basis and ask for his help, but obviously he cannot help, and he cannot promise them anything because he is no longer there and he hasn't got control of the purse of the government that he used to have.
But one of the objectives for Ahmadinejad's supporters at the Shiraz meeting was to keep so-called “friendly forces” -- i.e. political allies -- in government. I asked Alireza Nader if Ahmadinejad had had any success on that front:
[Alireza Nader] There have been some criticisms that Rouhani has not entirely changed the personnel that were associated with Ahmadinejad, that there are still members of the government that are linked to him. But when we look at Rouhani’s cabinet and senior position within government, there has been a pretty big change. Now, there are parts of the government which Rouhani doesn't control which are the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards, etc. so there may still be some Ahmadinejad supporters within those institutions.
Not that all of Ahmadinejad’s allies in government are safe. Even Ahmadinejad himself might have reason to feel unsafe should he return to politics.
[Alireza Nader] Going back into the political scene for Ahmadinejad is risky. The Rouhani government has blamed Ahmadinejad for a lot of Iran’s problems, and figures close to Ahmadinejad have been prosecuted, and sentenced to jail even, due to corruption. And when Ahmadinejad was president, there were rumours that he himself would come under investigation or even be arrested.
Still, if there is one thing Ahmadinejad is good at, it’s protecting himself. When he was in office, he did it by blackmailing members of the political establishment, including the famous Larijani brothers, who hold important posts throughout the government. Whatever information he had to blackmail them with, he’s still got.
[Alireza Nader] When Ahmadinejad was president he had disputes with other pol figures, including Ali Larijani the speaker of parliament and his brothers, and Ahmadinejad threatened the Larijani family. There have also been rumours that Ahmadinejad has secret files on the supreme leader and his family as well. Ahmadinejad also hinted he had certain info on the Revolutionary Guards, so he may use that information as a guarantee. If the government comes to try and prosecute him he could reveal that info.
But unless he can blackmail his way into elected office, or ride back into Tehran in the 12th Imam’s sidecar, his chances look pretty dim. Here’s Hooman Majd.
[Hooman Majd] If there was going to be a challenge to Rouhani both in terms of the parliamentary elections, and in terms of the next presidential elections in two years, I don’t think an Ahmadinejad candidacy would in any way be viewed as positive for anybody. They might want to promote a different conservative, but I can’t see how anybody would want to promote Ahmadinejad, particularly if this nuclear deal happens, and particularly if the econ seems to be improving already. He has pissed off enough people, even among hardliners, even among conservatives, who once were okay with him, whether it’s Ali Larijani, or any of the Larijani brothers, other people who are conservative but maybe not as radical as him, or as crazy as him I should say, I mean there's a real realization among the elite in Iran that he damaged Iran in his eight years almost beyond repair.
Alireza Nader has his doubts too.
[Alireza Nader] For me the Shiraz meeting is not enough to conclude that Ahmadinejad plans to come back onto the scene in a big way. When you look at his track record, a lot of Iranians think he was just simply a disaster for Iran and did a lot of damage to the country. And so it is very unlikely that he his going to be able to mobilize popular support.
And Kasra Naji doubts he’ll have to write part 2 of Ahmadinejad’s biography.
[Kasra Naji] For my money, I think he’s burnt his bridges, no one wants him back, even the hardliners don’t want him back, and he doesn't have anything to say. Things have moved on, and he still is a man of the past with no important backers, and these people don’t have the financial muscle that is needed for an effective campaign. I think he's in the wilderness for a long time.
Of course, even if Ahmadinejad’s political career really is over, Iranians are going to be living with him for a long time to come. They are still picking through the wreckage of his presidency.
That’s all from Iran’s Weekly Wire. If you want to find out more about this story, join us on Twitter or Facebook, or visit IranWire.com.