Iran’s Ex-president Ahmadinejad Raises the Stakes Against the Political Establishment
By Marie Donovan
Ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is giving the Iranian regime the last thing it needs right now: another internal security problem. The regime is still reeling from the widespread protests in late December-early January and has had its hands full responding to subsequent demonstrations, such as the violent Gonabadi Dervish protests in Tehran in mid-February. Ahmadinejad’s efforts to leverage popular discontent and erode the regime’s legitimacy could pose a real threat to Iran’s internal security.
Ahmadinejad’s high public profile and reckless attitude make him a unique problem for the regime. Ahmadinejad has been attempting to undermine Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s authority since his falling out with the Supreme Leader towards the end of his second term (2009-2013). He has disregarded the regime’s repeated public warnings. For example, he disobeyed Khamenei’s direct order not to run in the May 2017 presidential elections.
The regime’s efforts to restrain Ahmadinejad have been unsuccessful. The regime sentenced Ahmadinejad’s first vice president and felon Hamid Baghaei in December 2017, likely as a warning to the ex-president. Ahmadinejad responded by increasing his attacks against regime officials, especially Judiciary Head Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani. Some have suggested that Ahmadinejad was trying to damage Larijani’s chances at being considered a serious successor to Khamenei.
More recently, Ahmadinejad has used the recent protests to stir up popular disenchantment with the regime. His supporters requested a protest permit they knew the Interior Ministry would not approve, and Ahmadinejad even publicly criticized the Judiciary on the sensitive issue of the alleged suicides of detained protesters.
The ex-president may hope to convert popular discontent into political capital for his supporters who attempt to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections or even 2021 presidential elections. More drastically, Ahmadinejad’s stoking of popular disenchantment – intentionally or otherwise – could ignite further public protests. Ahmadinejad’s historic base of populists and rural conservatives track closely with the makeup of many of the crowds who participated in the December-January protests, although demonstrators did not indicate any explicit support for him.
Khamenei and the regime have likely avoided more drastic measures, such as prosecution against Ahmadinejad, for fear of mobilizing the base that the ex-president maintains. Instead, Khamenei will likely continue issuing public warnings to Ahmadinejad and imprisoning his corrupt cronies. Thus far, Ahmadinejad does not appear to maintain enough traction with his historic base to mobilize many people to the streets. If Ahmadinejad is able to marshal sufficient numbers, however, the regime may be forced to risk the potentially destabilizing effects of a harsher crackdown on him. Stay tuned.
Additional takeaways for the week:
- Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks to increase his political profile in Iran’s unstable political environment. Ahmadinejad published an open letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei calling for governmental reform and “free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections.” Ahmadinejad is capitalizing on months of recent anti-regime protests to renew attacks on regime officials and institutions, in an attempt to increase his political clout.
- The UN is not a viable channel for the U.S. to push back on Iran’s actions in Yemen. Russia vetoed an effort led by the U.S., UK, and France in the UN Security Council to sanction Iran for supplying ballistic missiles to the al Houthi movement. Russian remarks in the UNSC also sought to position Moscow as a neutral mediator in the region. Russia will continue to defend Iranian interests in Yemen in order to supplant U.S. influence in negotiations.
- Al Shabaab conducted its deadliest attack of 2018 in retaliation for a recent series of operations targeting its havens south of Mogadishu. Al Shabaab suicide bombers detonated explosives near the Somali Presidential Palace and the national intelligence headquarters, signaling its continued ability to strike secure targets.
- Boko Haram militants kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria, striking a major blow against the Nigerian government’s claims to weaken the group. The kidnapping may drive popular support to ISIS’s West Africa Province, a Boko Haram splinter group that is courting popular support by eschewing attacks on civilians.