TEHRAN, Iran — Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his inner circle have been at the center of a storm on the Iranian political stage in recent weeks, with senior aide Hamid Baghaei hurling brazen accusations of rights abuses at the judiciary.
Baghaei, a former vice president for executive affairs, made the accusations on July 26 after being released from 18 days in detention, his second imprisonment without any charge. Law enforcement officers first arrested him in June 2015, only freeing him after seven months.
Soon after Baghaei’s latest detention, Ahmadinejad slammed the move as a grave injustice and called for his immediate release. In an open letter on July 9, the former president openly accused political rivals of deliberately targeting him and his aides, writing, “They attack us when they quarrel with each other or make peace with each other … even if they can’t settle their scores, again they come to settle their scores with us.” In a second letter, Ahmadinejad wrote that Baghaei had gone on a hunger strike and warned that he would hold the judiciary responsible for any harm to his health.
Reacting on July 16, judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, without naming Baghaei, threatened that Ahmadinejad could be charged for his letters. He also vaguely spoke of “another defendant in a separate case who had confessed to giving 2 million euros [$2.3 million] to that person [Baghaei].” Without further elaboration, Ejei added, “[Baghaei] is held in proper conditions. He signed a paper, admitting that he prefers to remain alone rather than going to the communal ward.”
When Baghaei was hospitalized on July 25, Dolat-e Bahar, Ahmadinejad’s unofficial website, released footage of the ex-president and his inner circle standing behind the hospital gates, being denied a visit. In one video, Ahmadinejad complained, “Who are the people who give these orders?” In another video, he said, “We couldn’t see him and couldn’t make a phone call to him. Nonetheless, we can stay in the hospital’s yard until morning.”
Baghaei was released on a bail of 200 billion rials ($6.1 million), which is said to have been raised by Ahmadinejad supporters. Immediately after his release, in a public gathering, he bluntly condemned the judiciary, accusing it of unlawful imprisonments.
“Please go and see what is going on inside our prisons,” Baghaei charged, saying, “There was a guy in our cell who had been there for 13 months without any charge or trial, and he hadn’t contacted even his family; he had a kid. … Let’s assume that he is a criminal. Then you have to take him to court and punish him. He’d gone crazy, losing his mind. … Why? What for? When you then tell [the responsible official] that what he is doing is against the law, he says: ‘It’s my decision. …’ Did we have a revolution for this? Did our youth make sacrifices in the shah’s jails and during the revolution to see a bunch of corrupt people come to power?”
Baghaei also cited his interrogator, named “Ghassemzadeh,” as having told him, “President [Hassan] Rouhani's brother Hossein Fereydoun had accepted a 600 billion rial [$18.3 million] bribe to find a position for an individual on Bank Mellat’s board of directors, and we will summon him soon.” Of note, Fereydoun was arrested July 16 on financial crime charges and released a day later after posting 350 billion rials ($10.7 million) for bail amid hospitalization for high blood pressure.
Baghaei further rejected any financial misconduct among Ahmadinejad aides and directly denounced Ejei for stating that he didn’t want to enter Evin prison’s communal ward. He said, “When did I say that? Why are you lying? He is a liar! Mr. Ejei is lying now, just as he used to lie when he was at the Intelligence Ministry. … Tell him to bring that paper [he claims I signed].” Ejei notably served as intelligence minister under Ahmadinejad’s first term (2005-2009) before being dismissed.
Within a day of Baghaei’s remarks, Tehran’s prosecutor general, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, announced the filing of “another complaint” against him. Interrogator Bijan Ghassemzadeh also denied Baghaei’s claims regarding Fereydoun.
Al-Monitor spoke with conservative political strategist Amir Mohebbian about what may be behind the public clash between Baghaei and the judiciary. He said, “Although they [Ahmadinejad’s circle] act based on very complicated cult-like mechanisms and have their own view about political events, the current circumstances, particularly after their [Ahmadinejad and Baghaei's] failed presidential bid and the way they are treated [on the Iranian political stage], have forced them to react in this manner.”
He added, “Therefore, the judiciary’s quick reaction raises eyebrows about the politicization of Baghaei's case. And it is what Ahmadinejad wants.” When asked about the possible ramifications of Baghaei’s accusations, Mohebbian told Al-Monitor, “Baghaei’s comments add pressures, as all political factions are unanimous when it comes to complaining about the judiciary.”
Given Ahmadinejad’s strident anti-establishment rhetoric, Al-Monitor asked Mohebbian whether he thinks the former president is capable of capitalizing on dissenting voices to gradually become a new opposition leader. In Mohebbian’s view, that is an unlikely prospect. He said, “Neither the Reformists nor the conservatives trust him, so he has very slim chances to become a new opposition pole.”
Prominent Reformist politician Mohammad Ali Abtahi agrees, telling Al-Monitor, “Mr. Ahmadinejad cannot stand as an opposition leader because he has lost all his social and human capital. I don’t see any future for him.” Abtahi, who served as vice president under Reformist Mohammad Khatami, elaborated, “Mr. Ahmadinejad really wants to be seen as the leader of an alternative movement, but he has been unable to draw supporters. And by the way, I don’t think our people and the entire leadership have forgotten his presidency and [will] allow his return [on the political stage].”
Remaining silent for two weeks, Ejei on July 30 dismissed Baghaei’s criticisms, saying, “Those remarks are not true. … They see themselves as important people, but we shouldn’t pay attention to them. I personally don’t want to file a complaint against them.” Yet he ominously added, “Anyone from Ahmadinejad’s clan who acts against the law will be prosecuted.”
In the view of Abtahi, who was imprisoned in connection with the unrest in the aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009, the judiciary has been tolerant toward the former president. He told Al-Monitor, “The judiciary would have acted differently had Reformists behaved similarly.” Mohebbian takes Ejei’s warning more seriously, concluding, “The Islamic Republic has proved time and again that it doesn’t hesitate to confront political figures who go way beyond its ‘security red lines.’”