TEHRAN, Iran — There seems to be no end in sight to the standoff between former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the one hand and the hard-line judiciary as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization on the other.
Last month was particularly challenging for Ahmadinejad. He saw his former Vice President Hamid Baghaei sent to prison March 13, only hours after a court rejected his appeal and confirmed a 62-year sentence over a series of corruption-related charges. The charges notably included the alleged embezzlement of more than 3.7 million euros ($4.6 million) paid to him by the Quds Force, the foreign operations branch of the IRGC.
Baghaei has vehemently protested his sentence and demanded that Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani appear in court to testify that he was indeed paid the money he is said to have embezzled. In this vein, Ahmadinejad has also written a letter to Soleimani to express his willingness to reveal the nature of their work together. Soleimani has remained silent while IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif has denied any ties with Baghaei, adding a twist to the situation. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s adviser and confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is reviled by many conservatives for his controversial statements on sensitive topics such as Israel, showed up outside the British Embassy in Tehran to torch a copy of Baghaei’s verdict, claiming that it was issued on the orders of Britain.
The judiciary’s response was swift and tough. Mashaei was arrested on March 17. His lawyer, Mehran Abdollahpour, told Al-Monitor that he is charged with “aiding and abetting acts against national security.” Abdollahpour, who also represents Baghaei, elaborated, “Mr. Mashaei was interrogated by the investigators of the IRGC Intelligence Organization. … I was only allowed to attend his last interrogation. With the end of this process, his one-month arbitration detention should legally end and he can walk free on bail. But I don’t know why they refuse to release him.”
Abdollahpour also told Al-Monitor that Baghaei’s health is deteriorating, as he went on a hunger strike after his detention. Abdollahpour insists that his client is “very innocent” and that “there are no real charges.”
The detentions of both Mashaei and Baghaei have provoked tough reactions from Ahmadinejad. On March 14, he stated that he would hold all top state officials responsible for any harm to Baghaei’s health. He also harshly criticized unnamed “infamous corrupt people” for “misusing their legal, military, security and media power to tarnish the image” of his administrations.
Of particular note, Ahmadinejad even asked for God’s forgiveness “if we made a mistake or unknowingly and unintentionally helped some immoral people expand their powers.” Perhaps he was referring to Hossein Taeb, the hard-line head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization who rose to prominence amid the unrest in the aftermath of the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009.
Since mid-March, Ahmadinejad has written two more letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a second letter to Soleimani. In all of them, he insists on Baghaei’s innocence and cautions the supreme leader against the “injustice” perpetrated by the judiciary. The letters have gone unanswered.
In this vein, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, the spokesman of Ahmadinejad’s office, told Al-Monitor, “Ahmadinejad’s clear objective is raising public awareness. Nevertheless, he has very interesting things to say and with the passage of time and in parallel with the upcoming developments he will talk about them.” He added, “Ahmadinejad’s remarks come from his vision and understanding of Iranian affairs and a very precise analysis of events. He reasonably preferred to remain quiet for three years, but it was not possible anymore. Today, our people face a very difficult and complicated situation, and they expect Ahmadinejad to echo their demands.”
Javanfekr further claimed that Baghaei is a victim of “a plan to take revenge on Ahmadinejad and his governments. … He is paying the price for writing Ahmadinejad’s name on his ballot [in the May 2017 presidential election].” Of note, Ahmadinejad registered to run in the last presidential election, going against the public “advice” of Khamenei. The Guardian Council rejected his candidacy.
But not all agree with the notion of a targeted campaign to silence the former president. Prominent journalist and academic Amir Mohebian told Al-Monitor, “Although Mr. Ahmadinejad thinks the judiciary is reacting to his criticisms of [judiciary] chief Sadegh Larijani and the Larijani family, we should assume that the judicial body is doing its job.” He added, “Though, as long as we don’t have any information about [Baghaei and Mashaei’s] legal cases, we can’t make a judgment.”
In this vein, Mohebian said he believes that “Ahmadinejad doesn’t remain quiet because he thinks his silence would encourage his enemies, so he tries to make more revelations and prove that the Larijani family is dependent on Great Britain.” When asked about how far he thinks this tit for tat will go, Mohebian said, “It depends on Mr. Ahmadinejad and if he feels successful about his revelations.”
There is, of course, the question of what Ahmadinejad’s team has planned in case the threats against him materialize. Javanfekr told Al-Monitor, “The removal of Sadegh Larijani from his position is a just demand that the former president mentioned in his letter to Ayatollah Khamenei. We hope wisdom prevails, the current dilemma ends and the judiciary stops fueling tension. We always try to do everything legally. [But] we have warned those who are in charge of affairs against the uncontrollable consequences of imposing illogical restrictions on the public and political spheres.”
Will the pressure on Ahmadinejad thus further increase if he presses ahead with his path? Mohebian told Al-Monitor, “Ahmadinejad is not an ordinary citizen. He is a former president, and of course he has supporters. He will be dealt with carefully as long as he has not done anything wrong. But if people close to him do any wrongdoing, they will stand trial.” He cautioned, “These challenges will tarnish the image of the Islamic Republic. And the Iranian leadership is concerned with this point.”