reflections

Ahmadinejad Lives To Fight Another Day

5 MINS READSep 28, 2016 | 01:30 GMT
In a letter published today, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concedes that he will bypass running for the office again in 2017.
(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
In a letter published today, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad concedes that he will bypass running for the office again in 2017.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Last week, rumors began to surface that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would not run for president in the country's 2017 elections. Today, he confirmed those rumors. In a letter spread widely in Iranian media, Ahmadinejad dispelled any notion that he would again occupy the highest elected office in Iran, though he described himself as a "soldier of the revolution and servant of the people." The letter came after a tense meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who apparently had urged Ahmadinejad to forgo the election. In that way, the letter is a show of deference to the Iranian government's machinery, controlled as it is by Khamenei, and it puts on display the full power of the clerical establishment, which has long opposed the irreverence in which Ahmadinejad held its leaders. But still, coming from one of Iran's most bombastic and still-popular political leaders, the letter likely is a bid by Ahmadinejad to maintain his influence, even if it signals the end of his presidential ambitions.

The Aug. 30 meeting between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei was remarkable given the rough history between the two. During Ahmadinejad's eight years as president, ending in 2013, he invited the suspicion of global powers concerned about Iran's growing nuclear program. More important, within Iran, Ahmadinejad incited the ire of many powerful clerics, accusing them of corruption, defying Khamenei's decrees and operating outside carefully delineated guidelines. In Iran's theocratic democracy, the supreme leader, true to his title, is the ultimate referee, setting the tone for all the other players in the system. Despite his reputation as a reformer, President Hassan Rouhani, for instance, has unerringly upheld Khamenei's rhetoric. Rouhani, who plans to run for re-election next year, has deferred to the supreme leader in particular on matters of national security, intelligence and defense, understood to be under Khamenei's purview.

Ahmadinejad's critics in Iran remember him for corruption and economic mismanagement, while his supporters hail him as a strong embodiment of the revolutionary values for which the Islamic republic stands. During his second term in particular, the acrimony between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad reached a fever pitch over the supreme leader's appointment of an intelligence official to which Ahmadinejad objected. This was all amid deep animosity from members of the clerical elite whom the president had deemed corrupt.

With that in mind, Ahmadinejad's submission to that system displayed in today's letter is notable. This deference, which he did not display during his presidency, could bode well for Ahmadinejad as a popular figure safely enshrined in the government gears without holding an actual position. Another powerful former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, occupies a similar space, where he is safe (within limits) to comment and critique. 

Ahmadinejad is cleverly positioning himself as a figure of influence in the populist movement without burning more bridges along the way.

It is, of course, also possible that Ahmadinejad is angling for a presidential run in 2021 or 2025. After all, Khamenei's advice is not legally binding, as a ban from the Guardian Council would be. Even if Ahmadinejad had defied Khamenei's advice by running in 2017, or likewise had not issued today's letter, he would have remained a powerful political voice, even if those actions had led to punishment. Even former Iranian leaders under strict media bans, such as Mohammed Khatami, a reformist former president, still retain their political influence.

Iran's internal political workings, especially at moments of potential change, merit watching. Iran remains one of the biggest power brokers in the Middle East, and the face that its leaders show to outside financial and military powers deeply matters. Khamenei's urging Ahmadinejad not to run again reflects Iran's desire to avoid being buried once more under the kinds of harmful financial sanctions that, in the opinion of Tehran's elite, the former president's caustic rhetoric helped invite. The country only recently negotiated its way out of those straits and is not interested in going back. No matter who wins the U.S. presidential election, with rhetoric in Iran swirling about the implementation of the nuclear deal with the West, Khamenei has made it clear it does not intend to incur further financial sanctions.

No matter who replaces Ahmadinejad as a potential hard-line or populist candidate in 2017's elections, the supreme leader has, with his exchange with Ahmadinejad, lent credence to the more open diplomatic and financial comportment of the current Iranian administration. Candidate options at this point, seven months from April registration deadlines, are still very much up in the air. In advising that Ahmadinejad stand down to resist further polarizing the nation, the supreme leader is seeking to curtail a direct threat to his clerical power base at a crucial moment for Iran, which continues to open up far beyond the isolationist position that Ahmadinejad espoused. Though Ahmadinejad's political career is far from over, and his populist and nationalist appeal lives on, the chapter of his rather erratic domestic leadership in Iran's recent history has now been more firmly closed.

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