Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is taking another shot at the country's top political office. On Wednesday, the popular politician registered to run in Iran's presidential election, set for May 19, despite announcing in late September 2016 that he would not seek office again at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's personal request. But registering and running are two different things. Iran's Guardian Council still has to approve Ahmadinejad's candidacy, and it may opt to disqualify him from the race, as the former president well understands. For Ahmadinejad, though, the Guardian Council's decision is beside the point.
In fact, Ahmadinejad explained his candidacy as a bid to throw more support behind his protege and former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, whom he endorsed in March. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani pulled a similar move in 2013, when he registered for, and was disqualified from, the presidential race before campaigning for Hassan Rouhani. His efforts paid off: Rafsanjani boosted Rouhani's middling popularity and helped him win the vote. Ahmadinejad, likewise, is using his enduring appeal with the Iranian electorate — and particularly among poor, rural voters who share his anti-establishment and populist views — to support a likeminded candidate. And whatever the Guardian Council decides, the former leader will likely leave his mark on the race.
Ahmadinejad's popularity sheds light on the political contradiction underlying the modern Iranian state. Iran is at once a democracy, complete with an elected president, and a clerical theocracy headed by the unelected supreme leader. The system emerged concurrent with the Islamic republic to prevent the ruling class from monopolizing the state's resources, as it had throughout Iran's history. During the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini challenged the shah's authority and proposed a more populist solution based on Shiite principles: velayat-e-faqih, or rule by Islamic jurists. But the clerical establishment, too, has fallen prey to power. The ruling clerics have inevitably formed patronage networks to support their political allies and counterbalance the interests of the country's merchant class in its attempts to appease Iran's various interest groups with economic concessions. To uphold its legitimacy, meanwhile, the clerical establishment relies on velayat-e-faqih, and the supreme leader invokes the concept as justification for his role as final arbiter.
Still, corruption is a frequent rallying cry for Iranian politicians and their supporters. Ahmadinejad came to power by criticizing the "oil mafia" that the previous leaders had created through their efforts to decentralize and liberalize Iran's economy. By his second term, he had lost the supreme leader's tacit support (having challenged Khamenei's authority) and started calling openly for a new system of government in which the clerical establishment would serve only an advisory role. Though other leaders, including Rouhani and former President Mohammad Khatami, have also tried to strengthen the president's position against that of the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad's populist views made him a credible threat for Iran's clerical and political establishments. Consequently, his candidacy will meet with scrutiny and concern from the Guardian Council.
But Baghaei, too, may be able to channel the populist sentiment that his former boss commanded so well. As Ahmadinejad's vice president, Baghaei was also implicated in the graft charges against the administration as a whole — something that could hurt his chances of qualifying for the presidential race, though not necessarily his popularity with voters. (Ahmadinejad's apparent corruption has never fazed the more conservative and less affluent voters who make up his support base.) If he makes it past the Guardian Council's vetting, his candidacy will test the enduring appeal of Ahmadinejad's legacy. Elections offer Iranians a rare opportunity to air their political opinions, as they did in 2009 when the Green Movement erupted.
Assuming Baghaei or Ahmadinejad makes it to the presidential race, they would also give more mainstream political groups, including the clerics, a run for their money. The clerical establishment's frontrunner candidate, Ebrahim Raisi, has spent the past year as the head of Astan Quds Razavi, one of Iran's wealthiest autonomous charities. The organization, which oversees religious shrines in the country, offers the most conspicuous testimony to the massive wealth that the clerical establishment has amassed over the years. And for much of the past year, Iran's various political groups have been lobbing allegations of corruption and money laundering at one another, at times implicating Khamenei's allies in the judiciary.
By supporting Baghaei and registering for the presidential race, Ahmadinejad has put the clerical establishment in a tricky position. The Guardian Council now must decide whether it will approve the former president or his former vice president as candidates. If the council disqualifies Ahmadinejad, it risks galvanizing his supporters behind Baghaei. In disqualifying both figures, however, the council would risk stirring unrest among their populist constituents. Ahmadinejad's registration will make it more likely that one of them — if not both — gets through the vetting process.
More important, his bid for the presidency encapsulates the quandary facing Iran. Khamenei has shepherded the country's political system for three decades. But a new generation of politicians — whether populist figures such as Ahmadinejad, traditional conservative clerics such as Raisi or moderates such as Rouhani — is now vying for influence over the Islamic republic's future.