My guest post on The Foreigner:
Iran’s complex bureaucracy is slowly getting ready for another presidential election in June, but thus far the dynamic between the president’s faction and the regime has proven to be far from the ordinary.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure in office will be officially over this summer, however, he may not be ready to go down without a fight. Despite all warnings from regime officials, the president seems adamant about engineering a campaign victory for his right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Rahim Mashaei has not officially announced his candidacy, but the campaign seems to be well on its way. Numerous analyses suggest that Ahmadinejad’s faction will not have a chance in the election. More than likely any candidate perceived to be associated with the “deviant faction” – a term used to refer to the president’s supporters and his controversial ally Rahim Mashaei – will be disqualified by the Guardian Council and eliminated from the political arena. So, why is Ahmadinejad still campaigning? And how does the government perceive the intentions of the “deviant faction?”
Shortly after the 2009 presidential election, regime stalwarts began referring to Ahmadinejad and his camp as the deviant faction. The rift began when the president publicly challenged the Supreme Leader over his constitutional right to choose the government’s ministers. The critics believe Ahmadinejad’s brand of politics has deviated from the path of the velayat-e faqih or rule by jurisprudence.
WHAT IS HE THINKING?
Ahmadinejad knows the history of the Islamic Republic well. As evidenced by the fate of his predecessors, Ahmadinejad understands that the regime is not kind to losers. The defeated tend to be marginalized, access to the state controlled media is lost, and at times they are even physically harmed.
Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies were denied any major national prominence after his presidency ended in 2005. Another president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, was ousted from influential positions, after he called for unity following the 2009 presidential election. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, former regime members and presidential candidates, are still under house arrest at an unknown location.
Given his reputation among the influential regime members, Ahmadinejad recognizes that a dark horizon also awaits him and his camp. So, why stop fighting now?
In Ahmadinejad’s mind, the true test of his legacy will come in the next two months. Ahmadinejad has proven over and over again that he is not willing to go down without a fight and the home stretch is no time to quit. The best-case scenario will be for him to grant a safe passage for Mashaei through the Guardian Council’s vetting process, or at least assure that his faction will survive after he is no longer in office. He may even succeed in rallying the public opinion behind his camp, which may offer some kind of protection after he leaves the office.
The exact next steps of the president’s camp are not clear, but the regime should beware of a man with nothing to lose. The president has demonstrated that he is even willing to play dirty. As displayed on the floor of the parliament during an altercation with the speaker, Ali Larijani, Ahmadinejad is not afraid to publicly disclose sensitive information. In early February, Ahmadinejad challenged Larijani by accusing him of patronage, corruption, and “mafia-like rule.” He went so far as to play a tape of what he claimed was a recording of a conversation between Tehran’s Chief Prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, and Fazel Larijani, the speaker’s brother.
According to the tape, the Larijani family had used its prominence for economic gain. Larijani refuted the relevance of the tape and labeled it as blackmail. This unparalleled public confrontation forced the Supreme Leader issue harsh warnings. Ahmadinejad may have similar evidence and, more than likely, he will use such unorthodox tactics to ensure his longevity until the June presidential elections.
In the meantime, Ahmadinejad is doing all he can to paint himself as a populist president by paying lip service to the public. During his trip to the Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran on April 22, Ahmadinejad announced, “They have sent a message saying that if I become any bolder, they will try to hurt me. I will fight in the service of justice, revolution, and people…until death. Thousands of Ahmadinejads are not worth as much as a drop of justice or a piece of hair from the head of an Iranian citizen.”
During his trip to Semnan Province on April 11, the president went so far as to throw a jab at the Supreme Leader and the ruling establishment. “Some say that the Leader’s opinion dictates that this person should run and that person should not [campaign]. How is this any of your business? The people should decide. All [political] types should run,” Ahmadinejad announced.
The president’s camp also hosted an event on April 18 at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. The government had previously announced that the event’s purpose was to “acknowledge the servants of Norouz [the Iranian New Year].” However, critics of Ahmadinejad called it an illegal “election gathering,” because many expected Ahmadinejad to bring his chosen successor, Rahim Mashaei.
The controversial rally was held despite the president’s opponents accusing him of spending public funds for an extravagant gathering with political intentions. According to Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor-in-chief of Keyhan, a conservative newspaper close to the Supreme Leader, $40 million was spent on organizing the event. In an editorial written on April 23, Shariatmadari questioned the genuineness the president’s calls for justice and equality. “$40 million was taken away from the oppressed and disposed people in order to organize an election advertising event for Mr. Mashaei in the Azadi stadium. Is this an example of Mr. president’s justice seeking?”
According to IRNA news agency, nearly 70,000 supporters were in attendance, but the Iranian state media showed footage of almost deserted bleachers. Supporters of the president claimed that the video angles were chosen purposefully to only capture the empty areas, and make the event look like a failure.
THE ESTABLISHMENT’S POINT OF VIEW
Ahmadinejad rarely provides any details about the threats he receives, but it is safe to say that he is being pressured by regime officials to end his uncouth behavior. More than likely traditional conservatives do not view Ahmadinejad as a legitimate political threat to their chances of an election victory. The Guardian Council, the major constitutional body in charge of vetting the candidates, is under their control, so any candidate supported by the president could easily be disqualified. But they still view the president as someone who could further damage their personal reputations and the regime’s legitimacy.
More than once Ahmadinejad has announced that he is willing to publicize confidential records exposing his opponent’s past indiscretions. According to the BBC Persian service, during his visit to the Khuzestan Province, the president once again made his intentions public.
“Some send messages saying that they will confront me because of some of my statements. You are nothing in front of the will of the Iranian nation. This nation has stood up in front of the biggest oppressors; compared to them you [traditional conservatives] are nothing. If only the smallest part of your past behaviors are exposed, you will lose your place among the people,” Ahmadinejad declared. Many influential members of the political establishment have warned Iran’s outgoing president about his bombastic behavior, but to no avail.
On April 12, Ayatollah Momen, an influential member of the Guardian Council, warned Ahmadinejad and his camp by stating, “Don’t have any doubt. If we just sense a little deviation from a [candidate], we will disqualify him.” According to the Young Journalists Club, an Iranian semi-official news agency, Sadeq Larijani, the head of the country’s judicial system, criticized Ahmadinejad’s election efforts, saying “Unfortunately, some activities that are carried out with the government’s budget feel like election campaigns.” He continued by adding that such actions are considered to be a “crime” and the Guardian Council and the Judiciary are closely watching the perpetrators.
On April 23, Major General Hassan Firuzabadi, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, rejected the validity of any threats aimed at Ahmadinejad and advised him to be more measured in his claims. According to Mehr News, a semi-official news agency, Firuzabadi labeled Ahmadinejad’s statements as “unacceptable” and aimed at “disturbing the public opinion.” He added, “Mr. Ahmadinejad should stop making such statements.”
The warnings go on, but the regime is not counting on Ahmadinejad to listen. Security preparations are underway to insure a safe and calm election season. Of course, such moves include but are not limited to just concerns about Ahmadinejad’s deviant faction. Having experienced months of instability following the disputed 2009 presidential election, the regime is not taking any unnecessary risks.
It is difficult to assess Ahmadinejad’s ability or willingness to create the kind unrest seen in 2009. But, in the regime’s point of view, any potential for instability is considered a risk; so it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
In an interview with Mehr News on April 22, Firuzabadi also stated that the Iranian armed forces are “completely ready to confront any potential sedition” in the upcoming June elections. “Our armed forces are highly trained and experienced. They have the experience of the 2009 sedition, so they are familiar with the manner and the details of how to confront any potential dangers.”
On April 19, Iranian Police Chief Brigadier General Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam announced the reimplementation of new “moral and security” measures ahead of the upcoming elections. The move follows an April 16 announcement by Deputy Police Chief Brigadier General Saeed Montazeralmehdi on that an elections headquarters would be created for police to provide security for the elections and monitor anti-regime websites and social media.
The Cultural Ministry also recently announced that all mass text messages sent from election campaigns should be preapproved. According to TELNA, an Iranian information technology website, the spokesperson for ministry stated, “All SMS messages must be sent from traceable and known numbers…the content of such messages will also be controlled.”
In the coming months the battle between the president’s camp and the establishment will intensify. It is impossible to predict Ahmadinejad’s next move, but one thing that is guaranteed is his willingness to fight until the last breath. He does not have that many alternatives. He has to remain aggressive all the way up to the election, since otherwise he risks impending obsoleteness.