A shortlist of candidates for the June presidential election, to be announced today, will determine Ahmadinejad’s political future
Is it time to write the political obituary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose second and final term in office as the President of Iran is coming to an end in a few weeks? Not necessarily. But it is time to take stock of the man and his eight-year presidency. All the more so because he is not going to walk away into the sunset.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became President in 2005, defeating Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by winning 62 per cent of the votes cast. In 2009, he won a second term in office again with 62 per cent of the votes cast. There was unprecedented interest in the election the second time around, and an unprecedented uproar challenging its legality. The defeated candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, remains under house arrest since then.
Ahmadinejad’s second term in office has been interesting and entertaining, considering the staid political milieu in Iran. Even as the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, staunchly defended the controversial election results, Ahamdinejad announced Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, whose daughter is married to his son, as his First Vice-President. In view of Mashaei’s unacceptability to the conservative establishment, Khamenei had to publicly ask for his removal. Ahmadinejad complied, and defiantly appointed him as his Chief-of-Staff instead. Tensions rose again when Ahmadinejad dismissed his Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, weeks after Khamenei had praised him in public. Khamenei, in a rare exercise of his authority, reinstated him within hours of his dismissal. Ahmadinejad responded by staying away from his presidential responsibilities for a full 11 days! It was only after he was ordered to resign that he went back to work and welcomed Moslehi to the Cabinet. The immediate fallout of the ugly incident was that some of Ahmadinejad’s confidantes were arrested, some of his websites blocked and some members of Parliament sought to impeach him.
On February 14, 2012, Ahmadinejad became the first President of Iran to be summoned by Parliament to answer questions about his economic mismanagement, rising inflation and unemployment, and a free fall of the Iranian currency. It was Khamenei again who stepped in to order a halt to the parliamentary inquiry. The judiciary has accused Ahmadinejad’s administration of the worst corruption since the Islamic Revolution.
The most dramatic stand-off between him and Parliament came in February last year. When, summoned by Parliament, he stole the show and shocked the entire country by playing an audio cassette that recorded the Speaker, Ali Larijani’s brother using his name and influence to get financial favours. “If the honourable Speaker sees fit, we can turn over twenty-four to twenty-five hours of recording to you,” was the parting shot of a triumphant Ahmadinejad. It was he, however, who was rebuked; the taped conversation was ignored.
The Iranian nuclear issue has the dubious distinction of staying high on the global agenda for longer than a decade. It has, as a consequence, become a domestic issue in Iran as well. Ahmadinejad’s nuclear politics goes back to 2008, when he publicly refuted the consensus draft agreement that Ali Larijani, the then Iranian Chief Negotiator, had reached with Javier Solana, the then Chief Foreign Affairs Official of the European Union. The draft was reportedly approved by Khamenei. Ahmadinejad removed Larijani from his post and appointed Saeed Jalili in his place.
Last year, during his last appearance before the General Assembly, the Iranian President offered several suggestions on the nuclear negotiations. In an interview with Associated Press, he said, “A nuclear weapon? For what? For what purpose? Why would we do that? What would we use it for?” In another interview on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, he expressed optimism that after the U.S. presidential elections, important decisions on the development of enriched uranium could be made. It was his opponents’ turn to shoot him down. Not to be left behind, the reformists also hardened their position.
His encounters with women reveal an unexplored aspect of his personality. He invited the wrath of his enemies when he kissed his female teacher’s hand in public. This in a society where any physical contacts between men and women outside the familial circle is prohibited. At the funeral of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, he held hands and embraced Elena Frias de Chávez, the dead President’s mother. A round of denunciations ensued. Once, he proclaimed that women would be allowed into football stadia to watch the football clubs compete. He was quickly overruled.
His most controversial statements remain the ones on Israel. He called holocaust a myth and insisted on research into the phenomenon. Equally offensively, he said that Israel would vanish from the page of time. Clarifying and justifying the statement, he said, “Let me create an analogy here. Where exactly is the Soviet Union today? It did disappear. But exactly how? It was through the vote of its own people.”
Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei remains his source of strength and is his chosen successor. He is also the easiest soft target to hit Ahmadinejad with. Mashaei’s statements, at times, have been as controversial in the Iranian context as Ahmadinejad’s. He once said that Iran remains a friend of the Israeli people. At another time, he spoke of the truth of Islam in Iran. Friendship with Israel is a big no, no in the country and universal Islam must not be diminished by claiming a special tie with it for Iran. Mashaei’s initial appointment, in the face of Khamenei’s explicit displeasure, has added to his vulnerability.
Invoking comparisons with the Putin-Medvedev combine, Mashaei has already filed his nomination papers for the June 14 presidential elections, with Ahmadinejad standing by his side. The nominations will now go to the Guardian Council, whose shortlist of eligible candidates, to be announced today (May 22), is final. The Guardian Council consists of 12 members; six of them directly appointed by Khamenei. The other six are elected by Parliament out the list sent to them by the Chief of the Judiciary. The latter is Khamenei’s appointee.
What if Mashaei is not shortlisted? Ahmadinejad is not known to give up easily. The two options that he has already spelled out are these. First, he has been openly speaking about the documents he can put out in the public domain that would not just tarnish a few reputations, but could severely hurt the basis of the system itself. Last month, he was reportedly arrested for a few hours to get hold of the sensitive material he threatens his opponents with.
Two, he has been praising the Arab Spring, welcoming its future progression and dropping the prefix Arab. For example, he thrice repeated at the last year’s General Assembly address, “ Long live this spring, long live this spring and long live this spring.” Those who heard him detected ominous undertones.
In the meantime, he is on an extensive tour of the Iranian provinces with Mashaei in tow. These are the places where he has invested immense amount of his political capital by way of economic, employment and infrastructural improvement. Mashaei would reap where he has sown.
(Professor Gulshan Dietl is at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.)