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The story behind the end of Ahmadinejad’s bid for third term

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been barred from seeking a third term on May 19. But was this because the Guardian Council disqualified him — or because it didn’t approve of his qualifications to run in this year’s race?
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq, July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Karim Kadim/Pool (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX11RSP

Iran’s Guardian Council on April 20 agreed on six individuals to be allowed to compete in the May 19 presidential elections. The absence of one name caught many by surprise: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The late-night announcement ended speculations about whether the former two-term president (2005-2013) would be allowed to run.

The Guardian Council made its decision amid harsh criticisms of Ahmadinejad’s record, performance in office and even personal manner by his opponents.

Al-Monitor spoke with academic, longtime journalist and former conservative political strategist Amir Mohebbian about the events surrounding the former president’s disqualification. He said, “The Guardian Council did not disqualify Ahmadinejad but rather did not approve of his qualifications to stand in the 2017 presidential elections. There is a subtle nuance here.”

Right after Ahmadinejad’s registration to run on April 12, he was targeted by a vast boycott and massive pressure by some ordinary citizens, commentators, media outlets and online communities — particularly on channels of the popular messaging app Telegram. Strikingly, the campaign against Ahmadinejad originated mostly from the Principlist camp rather than rival moderates-Reformists.

Pressure reached a high when ex-lawmaker and fierce Ahmadinejad critic Ahmadi Tavakoli in an open letter to the Guardian Council urged its 12 members to disqualify the former president. Tavakoli cited “Ahmadinejad’s lack of commitment to the principles of the Islamic Republic” as the main reason why he should be deemed unfit to run for office yet again. This prompted supporters of the former president to believe that the attacks were aimed at pressuring the Guardian Council to take action.

But is it possible for the vetting body to be influenced by the media or individuals?

Mohebbian rules out such a possibility. He told Al-Monitor, “The Guardian Council functions based on its own regulations. However, society’s circumstances could affect its decision-making process, and nobody can deny that there was massive opposition by the conservatives against Mr. Ahmadinejad since his registration. The Guardian Council’s decision was in line with what the conservatives and the Reformists expected it to do.”

Ahmadinejad defeated late former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 2005 and 2009 elections, respectively. Both Rafsanjani and Mousavi were running on the Reformist ticket, which is why most members of the camp — including pro-Rafsanjani technocrats, supporters of former President Mohammad Khatami and the newly founded moderate faction — had major differences with Ahmadinejad over policy and his running of the government.

Yet the conservative former president’s greatest enemy these days appears to be fellow conservatives. When asked about the reason behind this animosity toward Ahmadinejad, Mohebbian said, “After his election [in 2005], he cut and denied his ties with that camp. In addition, some of his policies and ideas were in total contradiction with the conservatives and sometimes even were against the country’s interests. Therefore, their rift deepened day by day.”

Mohebbian added, “The conservatives and the Reformists were not in cahoots [in campaigning against Ahmadinejad] but had a common interest: It was seeing him out of the race. That shared interest forced the Reformists, who have always been protesting against the Guardian Council’s ‘approbation supervision,’ to remain silent when they saw that the[ir] rival was eliminated with the same method they are dissatisfied with. … The message [of the Guardian Council] is that the interests of the Islamic Republic are beyond and above the interests of individuals.”

What’s next for Ahmadinejad?

Given his failed bid for office, there is the question of whether Ahmadinejad will now face the same fate as his successor, Khatami, who is even banned from Iranian media.

In the view of Mohebbian, “Any move [on the part of Ahmadinejad] that creates tension could be worrying [for the establishment]. There will be no problem if he accepts the new circumstances. If he doesn’t, then restrictions could be imposed upon him. When the current situation is passed, things may get even better for Mr. Ahmadinejad, though all depends on how he reacts now.”

Ever since the announcement of the barring of Ahmadinejad’s bid for a third term, both conservative and moderate-Reformist media outlets and their respective online communities have continued their boycott of Ahmadinejad, preferring not to even mention the disqualification, or as Mohebbian puts it, “the Guardian Council’s disapproval.”

In this vein, in the early hours of April 21, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who serves as the spokesman of Ahmadinejad’s team, wrote on his Telegram channel, “Mr. Ahmadinejad and [his former vice president Hamid] Baghaei ran in the presidential race in accordance with their national and religious duties. They planned to fix people’s economic problems and deter potential threats aimed at the nation. With its decision, the Guardian Council freed them from that burden.”

Al-Monitor asked Javanfekr to elaborate on the details of the Guardian Council’s ruling as well as the various campaigns against his candidacy, but was only told that he “cannot make remarks about any subject that is not about Mr. Ahmadinejad or Mr. Baghaei.”

A source close to Ahmadinejad’s inner circle who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said, “They have decided to refrain from making any comments for the time being and keep their distance from the media.”

Despite this apparent strategy, Ahmadinejad and his also disqualified former Vice President Baghaei broke their silence on April 23. In a statement, they thanked those who asked them to run for president and made it clear that they have not, and will not, support any candidate in the elections.

That statement stopped the rumors of Ahmadinejad’s support for conservative hopeful Ebrahim Raisi, which have been intensified given Raisi’s hiring of two of Ahmadinejad’s ministers as his campaign managers.

A polarized society?

While addressing his students on Sept. 26, 2016, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke about an individual who had approached him to seek his view on whether to run for president. He said he advised the individual to avoid the polarization of society. “I did not tell him not to participate,” Ayatollah Khamenei continued, “I said ‘I do not find it advisable that you participate.’”

The individual in question was Ahmadinejad, who after his April 12 registration argued that Iranian society has already been polarized between the two main moderate-Reformist and Principlist groupings and that his bid for the presidency erodes that dichotomy.

Asked what may be ahead, Mohebbian predicted, “Another rift is highly likely in the coming weeks. By that time, conservatives Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Ebrahim Raisi have to choose between themselves, and one has to withdraw in favor of the other. On the opposite front, it is clear that incumbent President Hassan Rouhani is the main candidate and First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri acts as the backup candidate.” He concluded, “The next confrontation will be between these two fronts.”

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