Iran's former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures as he leaves a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey May 9, 2011. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

April 13, 2017

Why is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad running for president again?

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has just been challenged from a surprising direction.  Hardline Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registered to run for president on April 12 despite Khamenei publicly ordering him not to do so.  No Iranian politician has so defied the Supreme Leader since Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi continued protests after the 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad despite Khamenei’s orders to stop them.   Ahmadinejad’s action is even more surprising since he must know that the Guardian Council, which vets candidates, will almost certainly disqualify him anyway. What’s going on? 

Ahmadinejad most likely intends to achieve three things.  He hopes to pressure the Council to allow his protégé, Hamid Baghaei, to run when it was looking like the Council would disqualify Baghaei.  He clearly wants to challenge Khamenei’s authority.  He has also stolen the spotlight from the efforts of mainstream conservatives to rally around a single candidate to oppose President Hassan Rouhani.   Those efforts have been floundering, although they have managed to elevate hardline cleric Hojjat ol Islam Ebrahim Raisi to a prominent position as Rouhani’s most likely serious challenger.  Ahmadinejad has clearly thrown down the gauntlet not only to Khamenei, but also to the mainstream conservatives, demonstrating the deep cleavage within the conservative political movement in Iran. 

Ahmadinejad’s long history of challenging the Supreme Leader is the principal reason the Council could disqualify him. Ahmadinejad had a major falling out with Khamenei at the end of his presidency, and their relationship has only gone downhill since. Ahmadinejad implicitly challenged Khamenei’s authority in a March speech in support of Baghaei’s presidential run. The Council historically tends to vet in favor of the Supreme Leader, and undoubtedly does not approve of Ahmadinejad’s behavior towards Khamenei.  

Ahmadinejad does not have to win - or even be allowed to run - in order to achieve his objectives, however. Ahmadinejad’s announcement is an obvious slap in the face to Khamenei’s authority. Khamenei ordered Ahmadinejad not to run in the May elections last year, arguing that his candidacy “would polarize the country.” Ahmadinejad’s registration will damage Khamenei’s image as the authoritative decision-maker in Iranian politics unless he comes down hard on the obstreperous ex-president.

Ahmadinejad’s registration may also put more pressure on the Council to qualify Baghaei. The Council recognizes that its vetting must not be too heavy-handed, and knows the Iranian people must feel they are participating in the elections. Disqualifying Baghaei and Ahmadinejad may give the appearance that the Council will not allow their supporters a voice in these elections. Persuading the Council to approve Baghaei is an uphill battle, however, since there is a strong case for disqualifying him: Baghaei was arrested in 2015 and imprisoned for over six months, possibly on corruption charges, and is still under review by the Judiciary.

Ahmadinejad’s registration underscores significant divisions within Iran’s conservative groups. The “establishment” camp is itself split into those that tend more hardline, such as former Parliamentarian Ali Reza Zakani, and those that tend more conservative, such as Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani. The establishment camp is trying - and failing - to rally around its own unity candidate.

Ahmadinejad’s “anti-establishment” camp is separate from both of these elements.  Much of the establishment camp ostracized Ahmadinejad and his supporters after his fall-out with the Supreme Leader. The establishment camp is unlikely to unify with Ahmadinejad’s camp, especially after his most recent challenge to Khamenei’s authority.

President Rouhani is likely to be the winner in this intra-conservative fight.  If Ahmadinejad is permitted to run and manages to drum up sufficient popular support in the coming weeks, he may split the conservative vote more seriously than the competition among the establishment candidates.

Regardless, Khamenei has chalked up an embarrassing loss. He will likely have to come down hard on a conservative candidate who still maintains some popular support, however limited. Such a response is far from ideal, but it’s better than accepting the overt and aggressive defiance of one of his rare public interventions into Iranian politics. All this as Khamenei seems most concerned about preparing for his own succession.  Khamenei – 0, Ahmadinejad – 1.