Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran from 2005 to 2013, registered on Wednesday to run once again in the June 18 presidential election.
Ahmadinejad’s last comeback attempt in 2017 was scuttled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but this time Khamenei appears content to let him run. The extremist hardliner’s candidacy is not welcome news for an unstable Middle East roiled by violence from Iran’s client insurgencies and terrorist proxies.
Iran’s current president Hassan Rouhani is barred from running again by term limits, so the presidential race is wide open – or at least as “open” as a system where most of the candidates are pre-emptively disqualified by the theocracy will allow.
Ahmadinejad is an erratic anti-Western hardliner with a disturbing terrorist past, a thirst for nuclear weapons, and a penchant for Holocaust denial. He styles himself as a populist critic of Rouhani’s allegedly more moderate administration.
On Wednesday, he arrived at the Interior Ministry’s candidate registration desk flanked by a crowd of boisterous supporters, waving his hands in a “V for victory” gesture and claiming to represent a huge constituency displeased by Rouhani’s mismanagement of Iran’s affairs.
“My presence today for registration was based on demand by millions for my participation in the election,” Ahmadinejad claimed. He said Iran’s situation called for a “revolution in the management of the country.”
Reuters suspected Ahmadinejad’s bid to consolidate hardline support would run afoul of Ebrahim Raisi, chief of the Iranian judiciary and a cleric often discussed as a possible successor for the elderly Khamenei as Supreme Leader.
If Raisi decides to run for president to bide his time while he waits for Khamenei’s perpetually deteriorating health to finish deteriorating, many of the factions Ahmadinejad is counting on would likely choose Raisi, the analysis claimed. Some potential presidential candidates have publicly stated they will not enter the race if Raisi does.
Sky News, on the other hand, thought Ahmadinejad might hope to “energize discontent among hardliners who seek a tougher stance against the West, particularly Israel and the U.S.” The Iranian public seems generally unenthusiastic about the upcoming election, so the flamboyant Ahmadinejad might be best positioned to generate some energy.
Foreign Policy spotted two other prominent contenders in the Iranian presidential race so far: Rouhani’s former defense minister Hossein Dehghan and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) brigadier general Saeed Mohammad. Candidate registration runs through Saturday.
Khamenei once supported keeping Ahmadinejad in power after an exceptionally dirty election sparked Iran’s “Green Revolution” in 2009, but they drifted apart after Ahmadinejad began pushing “reforms” that would limit the power of the Supreme Leader. Khamenei said he would remain neutral in the 2021 race, but he could pull strings to wreck Ahmadinejad’s candidacy, sink him with casual remarks in a public forum, or simply rely on the theocratic Guardian Council to reject Ahmadinejad’s application, as it does with most candidates in Iran’s absurd elections.
Ahmadinejad has lately been seeking to soften his fire-breathing reputation by remodeling himself as a centrist and internationalist, as with his call for regional cooperation between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey last week.
This effort has not restrained him from seeking to undermine Rouhani’s administration and political coalition. In other remarks last week, he announced Qatar paid $57 million to ransom 57 IRGC troops who were captured in Syria, marking the first admission by anyone close to the Iranian government that IRGC forces had indeed been taken prisoner.
Ahmadinejad portrayed himself as a broker of the hostage deal.
“I found a way to contact the hostage-takers, and they said they want a million dollars for each hostage. That is a total sum of $57 million, which is a lot of money. We said, ‘Well! Anyway, the life of every Iranian is worth much more than that,’” he recalled, implicitly dismissing Rouhani’s government as useless and positioning himself as an indispensable intermediary.
Ahmadinejad claimed in late April, without offering any evidence, that officials in Rouhani’s government “bought an island to escape to if the nation boils over with anger.” He also accused the ruling coalition of seeking to delay the presidential election or minimize turnout, using the coronavirus as an excuse, so it could retain its grip on power.