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Iran's Ahmadinejad Accused Of Planning Putin-Style Power Grab

Has Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) already found his "Medvedev" in Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei?
A recent comment by Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has revived speculation about his political future.

During a live interview on September 4 with Iranian state television, Ahmadinejad appeared to suggest that he might remain in power beyond the end of his term. Ahmadinejad's second term as president ends in 2013 and under Iran's constitution, he cannot run for a third consecutive term.

During the interview, the reporter asked the president if he planned to publicly name people involved in state corruption, as he had promised to do. "There is only one year left of the government…," the reporter began.

"How do you know it will be the final year?" a smiling Ahmadinejad responded. The government is part of the Iranian nation, he added, and the nation will remain forever.

The cryptic answer made headlines on several Iranian news sites, including Khabaronline, which said Ahmadinejad made the comment with what it called a "meaningful" smile.

His remark was all the more puzzling in light of the fact that Ahmadinejad -- who has seen his position weaken this year following a power struggle with allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- told a German daily in June that he would leave politics when his second term ended.

"Eight years are enough," Ahmadinejad told Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung."

'You Are Not Putin'

Several Iranian lawmakers, including Mohammad Dehghan, a member of the parliament's executive board, have jumped into the fray. Dehghan accused the Iranian president of attempting a presidency bid in the style of Russia's Vladimir Putin -- an accusation that has been made in the past against Ahmadinejad.

Dehghan was quoted by the semi-official Mehr news agency as saying that Ahmadinejad had used the interview with state television to promote his "Putin/Medvedev presidency plan."

"It is unjust that the president has used the national television to push forward his election project," he said.

Putin served two terms as Russia's president and then became prime minister for one term -- while he backed his former prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to be elected president -- and then returned to the presidency this year.

"The president should know that Iran is not Russia and he is not Putin, and the Medvedev [figure] Ahmadinejad has in mind has no standing, and will not have any standing, in public opinion," Dehghan said.

Who Would Be Medvedev?

But he stopped short of naming the figure he thinks Ahmadinejad might try to use to extend his political life. The Iranian president has been accused in the past of trying to appoint close aide and adviser Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as his successor. The controversial Mashaei is described by some as "the actual president," and has been accused of leading a "deviant current" and threatening the clerical establishment.

Earlier this week, several websites quoted Mashaei as saying that the future government will be in the hands of Ahmadinejad and his close circle. "I have expressed my readiness and I will [run]. Mr. Ahmadinejad has convinced me to participate," Mashaei was quoted as saying at a recent meeting.

Another lawmaker, Ruhollah Beigi, said Ahmadinejad's comments violated the spirit of elections, which he said are aimed at putting a brake on government if needed. "It is not like Ahmadinejad will see his power [extend] for 10, 20, or more years," Beigi said.

The chairman of Iran's Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, also reacted to Ahmadinejad's comment by saying that the government could not assume its candidate will win any future presidential elections.

If the Iranian president is indeed planning some sort of power grab, former Iranian lawmaker Ali Mazrouei says, it is highly unlikely that the former protege of Supreme Leader Khamenei will succeed.

"Under the current conditions, the [ultimate decision-maker] is Ayatollah Khamenei. If things change then neither Khamenei nor Ahmadinejad can do anything," Mazrouei says.

Iranian media have speculated that Ahmadinejad could also try to remain in politics by running for parliament or even setting up his own political party.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.