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Is Iran's Ahmadinejad seeking a comeback?

The former president's supporters appear to backing a push for his return to power but the wider public is not pleased with his legacy

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still being harshly criticised in public, especially by the pro-reform, outspoken officials of President Hassan Rouhani's administration. Rouhani, a centrist cleric, has himself opted to keep a restrained, inconspicuous stance in regard to the policies of the previous administration.

However, several high-profile figures in Rouhani’s cabinet do not shy away from candidly chiding Ahmadinejad over a number of issues: from his adventurous, outlandish foreign policy to his economic mismanagement, which pushed the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

The First Vice-President of Iran Eshaq Jahangiri has said Ahmadinejad squandered $950 billion of oil revenues during his eight years in office when the OPEC price for crude oil was at its height and his "financial anarchy" brought the inflation rate to 41%.

He once famously said the “biggest cases of financial corruption in the past century” occurred during Ahmadinejad’s two terms as president. He also said: "At the beginning of our work [in the new administration], the nation was struggling at the edge of the abyss, and we moved the country 10 steps up." These fiery statements compelled Ahmadinejad to lodge a complaint against Jahangiri on charges of "defamation", litigation that was turned down by Iran’s judiciary.

Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy is also severely criticized, as there are many people who believe he prolonged the nuclear controversy and underpinned the imposition of the economic sanctions on the nation, wasted many opportunities for rapprochement with the United States, alienated the entire European Union and sparked a diplomatic row with Britain – which led to the closure of the British Embassy in Tehran after angry protesters attacked it in November 2011 – and isolated Iran internationally with his unnecessarily inflammatory rhetoric and uncompromising stance, including his recurrent denial of the Holocaust, which angered Jews and non-Jews alike.

Many of those who pulled out all the stops in 2005 to bring Ahmadinejad to power as an icon of "principlism" and commitment to revolutionary values, and went through fire and water to keep his seat unscathed in 2009, are now distancing themselves from him, saying that he joined a "deviant current" that detached him from his original, pure character.

Some of them talk of differences between the "2005 Ahmadinejad" and the "2009 Ahmadinejad". They maintain that they’re still loyal to the 2005 Ahmadinejad, but would never pledge allegiance to the 2009 Ahmadinejad. It’s simply an apology to play down the unconditional support they had awarded to Ahmadinejad in two consecutive elections.

By a deviant current, the conservative partisans of the former president apparently imply that its ringleader is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff from 2009 to 2013, his closest confidante and the father of his daughter-in-law. Mashaei was famous for his apocalyptic viewpoints and ultra-nationalist mindset, in addition to his controversial statements, including one in which he had broached Iran’s friendship with the "Israeli nation".

Ahmadinejad had appointed Mashaei to several government positions in defiance of many senior clerics who considered him a freemason and heretic.

Ahmadinejad is now, in the view of many people in Iran, a detested and somewhat ostracised political actor, as he has lost his charisma in the camp of conservatives as an ideal revolutionary, and it is already clear that will be the most unlikely ally of the reformists who view him to be a radical, fanatic right-winger who has left a legacy of economic devastation and successive foreign policy failures. Even so, the former mayor of Tehran appears to be harbouring plans for a resurgence to power: to become president again.

Following a few months of silence and hibernation in the wake of presidential election in 2013, which brought to power a moderate former diplomat who had pledged to the nation that he would bring the nuclear stalemate to an end, Ahmadinejad resurfaced, attempting to mend his public image in the eyes of millions of Iranians who didn’t trust his demagogic gestures anymore.

Ahmadinejad has launched a comprehensive news website (in Persian) that features his statements, runs a long list of his "breakthroughs" as president, amplifies them through graphs, illustrations and visual statistics, publishes photo essays of his public appearances, and recruits supporters. There are other websites that are also in charge of enlisting the fans and supporters of Ahmadinejad so as to keep them mobilized for a possible future campaign, and at the same time serve as the propaganda wing of Ahmadinejad’s media advisers, who continue holding up this mantra that he was a superlative and phenomenal president and his enemies simply "defamed" him.

The hardliner has now started going on lecture tours across the nation, entertaining crowds of those who have remained faithful to him and get together as soon as they hear the announcement that the former president wili be delivering a speech somewhere. It’s understandable that he has already kicked off an informal electoral campaign for the 2017 presidential vote.

Ahmadinejad seemingly doesn’t get official government authorization for his public rallies. In Iran, public events, including rallies, speeches and gatherings require the endorsement of the authorities; otherwise, the law enforcement officials would be permitted to take action and annul them.

In recent months, several public events featuring reformist speakers, university professors, intellectual supporters of Rouhani and even the centrist MP Ali Motahari have been called off or disrupted by violent mobs, even though they had been sanctioned by the Ministry of Interior, which is in charge of issuing such permissions.

It’s quite inconceivable that Rouhani’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli is unable to sustain the permissions he confers on public events in which the administration devotees are slated to speak, but goes so far as to issue approval for speeches by Ahmadinejad, whom the majority of people prefer to see sidelined after eight uproarious years of his administration imbued with blistering, incendiary speeches that resonate with unpleasant memories for them.

Ahmadinejad apparently boasts of plans for returning to power. He is definitely missing the public debates of the UN General Assembly, his countless interviews with US TV and radio stations, verbal attacks on the leaders of the United States and European governments, unrequited letters to Nicolas Sarkozy and George . Bush and posing for the photographers at international conferences.

I’d dare to call him a publicity stunt rather than a politician to be taken seriously. He needs to repossess power so as to realise his plans for "global management"; a management for which he never had any comprehensible, sustainable vision.

A couple of Ahmadinejad’s close aides are now in jail over corruption and embezzlement charges, while he himself has been the subject of lawsuits which he needs to go to court and defend himself against  - he has thus far refused to attend the hearings for a number of court cases brought against him following the end of his presidency. It’s also a mystery whether he can successfully survive the vetting of the Guardian Council, a constitutional court in Iran that inspects and then approves or disqualifies candidates for different elections, including the presidential race.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad should wait for a protective, patriarchal endorsement by the Supreme Leader so as to run for presidency with some daring; otherwise, he would have little to no popular support, especially among those people who match their choices to the priorities of the Supreme Leader.

This means his campaign may end in a debacle that would terminate his political life once and for all. By the end of the day, it’s highly unlikely that the Supreme Leader will again give a green light to Ahmadinejad, as he knows well the extremist policies of the former president will drown the nation in a new quagmire that would be too costly to get out of.

-Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and media correspondent. He is staff writer with Iran Review and a reporter with the California-based Fair Observer. He has also contributed to Huffington Post, Your Middle East, International Policy Digest, Gateway House and Tehran Times.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) mourns during the funeral of Abdollah Bagheri, one of his personal bodyguards and member of Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guards Corps who was killed fighting in Syria, during his funeral in Tehran on 29 October, 2015 (AFP).

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