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Springtime For Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech during a rally in Tehran to mark the 34th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 10.
Resistance is in the air in Tehran, with calls of "Viva Spring" ushering in the election season and signaling that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad does not intend to go quietly.

The slogan, widely seen as an endorsement for the candidacy of Ahmadinejad's right-hand man, Esfandiari Rahim Mashaei, has been used repeatedly by the outgoing president and his supporters in recent days.

With Ahmadinejad engaged in a power struggle with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his powerful allies, critics cite the slogan as evidence of the "deviant current," a term used by Iranian officials to refer to Ahmadinejad's inner circle. The president, who is completing his second and final term, has been accused of violating election laws and engineering the vote for his successor.

In the eyes of Ahmadinejad's opponents, calls of "Viva Spring" mark the unofficial launch of Mashaei's election campaign and herald an attempt by Ahmadinejad to retain power by installing Mashaei as his placeholder until he is eligible to run again. The scenario has been compared to the Putin/Medvedev situation in Russia in which Vladimir Putin served as prime minister while his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, took over as president for one term.

When about 100 of Ahmadinejad's supporters welcomed him last week in Tehran upon his return from Egypt, they reportedly held posters with the slogan "Viva Spring." Mashaei, who received a hero's welcome along with Ahmadinejad, has indicated that "spring" is a reference to the return of the "Hidden Imam," who Shi'ite Muslims believe will reappear and bring justice to the world. "We have one spring. That is the Mahdi, who will come soon," he has been quoted as saying.

Ahmadinejad himself used the slogan at the end of his February 10 speech marking the 34th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The same day, "Viva Spring" surfaced on posters held by a number of individuals as they violently disrupted a speech in Qom by Ahmadinejad's rival, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, prompting him to leave the scene. The hard-line Alef website said chants in favor of Mashaei's presidency were also heard from the crowd.

Defying His Enemies

Mohammad Esmail Kowsari, a lawmaker and a former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander, believes Ahmadinejad's use of the slogan is intended for the June 14 vote and, as such, is a "clear violation" and "engineering of the election."

Another lawmaker, Mohammad Hossein Asafri, has listed "Viva Spring" among the slogans of the "deviant current," of which Mashaei is considered a top figure. Mashaei is widely despised by the clerical establishment for promoting an Iranian doctrine instead of an Islamic one.

Many of his opponents believe Ahmadinejad is seeking to put close confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (left) in the presidential post.
Many of his opponents believe Ahmadinejad is seeking to put close confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (left) in the presidential post.

Mohammad Hossein Ziya, a journalist who campaigned for opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi, believes the February 10 speech watched by millions of Iranians is part of a calculated effort. "All of these [developments], including a poll released by the government daily 'Iran' that claimed that Mashaei has 35 percent support in 24 areas of Tehran, are signs of an organized move by this group to magnify Mashaei and to use him," he says.

Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at Britain's Birmingham University, agrees that Ahmadinejad was endorsing Mashaei. But there was more to the speech. "The bigger part of the story is that Ahmadinejad not only said, 'I want you to support Rahim Mashaei,' he then went on to say, 'My opponents are going to try to rig the elections.' And he called on the Iranian people to stand up against this and vote for the best man," Lucas says.

"As far as I know that is the most explicit call by any politician in terms of a warning about the elections being manipulated," Lucas adds. "We've had elements of this in the past from various politicians but for Ahmadinejad to do this it's not only a show of defiance in the face of his rivals, it's a show of defiance, in my opinion, in the face of the supreme leader."

All The Aces, Or Just A Bluff?

Ahmadinejad, whose 2009 reelection led to allegations of massive fraud, warned in his speech about those who are planning "to engineer" the election. He was apparently referring to comments made in January by Khamenei's representative to the IRGC, Ali Saidi, in which he said the "rational and logical engineering of the election" is the duty of the IRGC. Saidi added that engineering did not mean interfering in the elections.

Ahmadinejad's speech comes amid a dispute between the president and his opponents that has become increasingly ugly.

Last week, Ahmadinejad and Larijani engaged in an unprecedented public exchange of accusations. In the course of an open parliament session, Ahmadinejad's labor minister was dismissed and the president released a secret video recording that allegedly exposed corruption by members of the Larijani family.

In recent months a number of Ahmadinejad's allies have been charged or jailed on corruption and other charges. Last week, former Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazavi, nicknamed the "Butcher of the Press," over his role in the closure of newspapers and jailing of journalists, was jailed for one day at Evin prison.

Ahmadinejad, once a Khamenei protege, has become isolated and weakened as a result of his fight with the supreme leader. Yet he has refused to give in and has even upped the ante.

Analysts suggest the president is worried about his future and the future of his close aides once his presidency ends. Ahmadinejad has threatened to reveal damaging files believed to have been obtained last year when he fired an intelligence minister who was an ally of Khamenei and who was quickly reinstated by the supreme leader. The February 10 disruption of Larijani's speech in Qom and the allegations of corruption against him and his brothers is seen as a warning by Ahmadinejad that he will not go down without a fight.

Journalist Ziya says the bold moves by Ahmadinejad and his recent speech appear to suggest that "his hands are full." "There have been rumors that while Ahmadinejad was in charge of the Intelligence Ministry he gained access to important documents," he says. "I think we're seeing the correctness of those rumors in the events of the past two weeks, particularly in Ahmadinejad's policy of attack."

Lucas, however, considers Ahmadinejad "finished" and believes he might be bluffing. "If I've got a weak hand, sometimes the worst thing to do is simply to fold the hand and give away," the analyst says. "Instead I'm going to pretend I've got a really strong hand to take this as far as I can and make my opponents back down."

Both analysts believe that Khamenei is likely to continue his strategy of containment when it comes to the combative president. Ahmadinejad's next move is more difficult to predict.

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