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Analysis: Ahmadinejad, Iran's Greatest Foil, Is Back In The Spotlight

A political cartoon on Ahmadinejad's surprise decision to register as a presidential candidate despite being told by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei not to do so (by Shahrokh Heidari)

He's back. The white polyester shirt that glistens in the light; the salesman's shark-toothed grin; the restless arms, always waving and throwing victory signs: Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iran's combative and polarizing former president, has reentered the political spotlight.

His decision to register to run in the presidential election slated for May 19 followed weeks of speculation over what the former president was doing behind the scenes -- and still came as a complete surprise.

Following his controversy-marred presidency -- he served two terms, from 2005 to 2013 -- Ahmadinejad had fallen from favor with the clerical establishment, lost his role as a mouthpiece for fiery hard-line rhetoric, and retreated into obscurity. He was not expected to enter frontline politics again.

His second election victory, in 2009, was widely thought to have resulted from vote rigging and sparked the largest demonstrations in Iran since the Islamic Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest the result, and to show support for defeated candidate Mir Hossein Musavi and his opposition Green Movement.

The protests were stifled after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei publicly backed Ahmadinejad, ushering in a harsh crackdown on demonstrators and the opposition. But the establishment had been rocked at home, embarrassed abroad. And Khamenei's support for Ahmadinejad didn't even serve to secure his loyalty.

Former Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad flashes the victory sign at the Interior Ministry's election headquarters after registering to run for president.
Former Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad flashes the victory sign at the Interior Ministry's election headquarters after registering to run for president.

Ahmadinejad was determined not to be a lame-duck, second-term president and toward the end of his final term openly clashed with the supreme leader. Not one to forget a slight, and seeing the narrow opening for Ahmadinejad to reemerge once he had sat out a term, Khamenei warned his former ally not to think of running for president again. Such a move, he advised Ahmadinejad in 2016, would not be "in his interest or that of the country."

Predictably, election officials were "stunned" when Ahmadinejad showed up to submit the requisite paperwork for consideration as a candidate, AP journalists say. Addressing the whispers -- that he had done the unthinkable in defying an order from the supreme leader -- Ahmadinejad told reporters that Khamenei's injunction was "just advice."

It's no given that he will, indeed, run for a third term. As it stands his name will be just one among hundreds of registrants until the list is trimmed down to the dozen or so officially approved by the Guardians Council, whose allegiance to the supreme leader is unquestioned.

But Ahmadinejad has announced his intention to do what he does best: courting controversy, making headlines -- and, above all, pushing himself to the forefront of Iranian public life. Questions remain, however: Why is he doing this? Can he make things uncomfortable enough that his candidacy is actually accepted? And, if he really wants to be president again, can he win?

His story is a complex one and, in part because of the various warring factions within the Islamic Republic's political fabric, he is hard to pin down. He was once allied with the Osul-Garayan, or principlists -- a faction of hard-core conservatives dedicated to the ideals and values espoused by the father of the Islamic Revolution -- Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The principlists dominate the central organs of the Iranian body politic; if such a thing as a "deep state" exists within the Islamic Republic, they are it.

But as he fell out of favor with Khamenei during his last stint in office, Ahmadinejad split from the principlists as well. Now, as well as directly contravening the "advice" of the supreme leader, he has defiantly ignored calls by his old principlist allies to realign with them by supporting a unified candidate.

A political cartoon by Mana Neystani
A political cartoon by Mana Neystani

As Ahmadinejad strikes out on his own, regardless of his popularity with the common man, it is difficult to see a path to victory for him. And that is assuming he can clear the first hurdle: vetting by the 12-member Guardians Council, which typically rejects vast numbers of registrants. There is precedent even for a big name like Ahmadinejad to be denied. In the 2013 presidential elections another former president -- the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- was barred from running after falling out with Khamenei. If the pragmatist Rafsanjani could be banned, then so too could Ahmadinejad.

According to Clement Therme, a research fellow for Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Ahmadinejad may be playing a slightly more complex game.

One of the likely candidates for election is his former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, who was sent to prison in 2015 on unnamed charges (and likely as a signal to Ahmadinejad, whose presidency has been painted as corrupt by his adversaries). The two men are known to be close and Ahmadinejad may be running to protect his old friend.

"Ahmadinejad is now standing as a right-wing populist," Therme says. "The primary reason he participated in the registration of the candidates is likely to be first and foremost to protect his former vice president, Baghaei." In entering the race, Therme argues, Ahmadinejad is pressuring the system. "The message is: 'If you try to disqualify Baghaei, I will stand as a candidate seeking a third term.'"

Therme explains that, since the beginning of his political career, Ahmadinejad has sought to transcend the divide within the clerical establishment between reformists and conservatives. But this divide, so often mentioned in the Western press, is not accurate when it comes to economic issues -- here the divide would be between advocates of state-oriented economic policies and liberal ones. "Musavi, for instance, [who] was often labeled as a reformist, was a supporter of state-oriented economy," Therme says. Current President Hassan Rohani -- who as of April 13 had yet to register to run for a second term and who has earned the moniker of relative moderate due to his willingness to deal with the West -- "is a supporter of neoliberal approach in terms of his economic policies."

Therme speaks to something that is central to Ahmadinejad's appeal. Whatever label you affix to him -- principlist, conservative, or pragmatist -- he is one thing above all else: a populist. His support comes mainly from Iran's lower classes -- he looks like them; he dresses like them; he even speaks like them. During his time in power he gave them interest-free loans, cheap housing, and was seen as taking on systemic corruption. Even after his eventual split from the supreme leader he retained the support of the people. To them, he represents a new type of hard-liner that people identify with, free from the corruption of Khamenei and his ilk (though this image was slightly sullied by allegations of corruption stemming from his second term).

In politics, in rhetoric, and even in strategy he is a singular phenomenon. Therme's words bear scrutiny: "Ahmadinejad has made a career out of pretending to be antisystem while serving the system. What is important here is his discourse toward the "oppressed" -- both reformist-minded and conservative-minded political citizens. His political clientele can be found amongst the rural areas and southern Tehran [the poorer section of the capital]. His first election was perceived as a political revenge of the popular classes against the reformist-oriented upper-class segments of Iranian society. This divide is at the center of his political discourse."

Ahmadinejad with his former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, after registering as a presidential candidate on April 12.
Ahmadinejad with his former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, after registering as a presidential candidate on April 12.

First to be determined is whether Ahmadinejad will be approved as a candidate or face the same fate as Rafsanjani. As much as Khamenei and his coterie would love to bar him (and indeed may well do that) he presents a problem that lies at the heart of the Islamic Republic's political system. Iran is an elective autocracy. The supreme leader holds the real power and a special body elects him -- not the people. The people choose from a heavily vetted field to elect the president, whose powers are limited. Nevertheless, it is their primary opportunity to influence the direction of their country.

What this means is that the system needs not merely the right winner, but a high turnout. Participation is key for the success of a presidential election in an elective autocracy because it gives the people the illusion that they can shape events (even if the reality is not quite so simple). And if there is one thing Ahmadinejad can do it is to get people to the polls. If he were to be disqualified there is a high chance it would lessen interest in the elections.

As Therme concludes: "It's when things are unpredictable that you can make people think their vote matters -- this is critical to maintaining the facade of the Iranian elections. Take that away and people might start to see the whole process for what it really is -- and that is something the regime wants to avoid at all costs."

(The views expressed in this analysis do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian, Politico, Foreign Policy, The Spectator, The New Republic, The New Statesman, and many others.