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Iran’s Presidential Election, In 10 Points

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

In a significant move, former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has thrown his hat into the ring for Iran’s May 19 presidential election. Analysts have called the move stunning but, given Ahmadinejad’s history of unpredictable reactions, his decision to register as a candidate is hardly surprising.

Ahmadinejad has entered the presidential race even after direct advice by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to stay out of the competition. Despite explicitly expressing his intent to comply with Khamenei’s suggestion in an open letter to the leader, Ahmadinejad subsequently changed course and decided to run for president.

At a press conference in early April, Ahmadinejad was reminded of Khamenei’s words. “That was only advice, not an edict,” he told reporters.

In an exclusive analysis for Radio Farda, Iran affairs expert Morteza Kazemian highlights 10 points about the significance of Ahmadinejad’s decision.

  1. Ahmadinejad’s Right To Be A Candidate

Ahmadinejad’s candidacy is his inalienable right as a citizen. If the Council of Guardians -- the elections vetting body -- were to disqualify him, it would further damage the process of elections in Iran.

Disqualifying him would be as despicable as the council’s arbitrary and illegal routine of preventing women, Sunnis, and members of the opposition from becoming candidates in the presidential election.

  1. A New Dilemma For The Regime

Ahmadinejad running for president will pose another dilemma for Iran, which is based on the jurisprudence of an ayatollah, or “the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist.”

If the Guardian Council approves the candidacy of Ahmadinejad, it is essentially ignoring the supreme leader’s advice to him. On the other hand, disapproving the credentials of a candidate who has served an eight-year term as president would raise more doubts about the existence of healthy and free elections in Iran.

By ignoring Khamenei, Ahmadinejad is further taxing the ruling system and particularly the main axis of power in Iran.

  1. Another Blow To The Leader’s Credibility

Ahmadinejad’s registration as a presidential candidate is a new and serious challenge to Khamenei’s status as the apex of Iran’s pyramid of power.

In 2009, Ahmadinejad’s re-election led to the largest public protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Millions of people rallied in the streets of Tehran, saying his re-election was engineered and marred by fraud. Khamenei relentlessly supported Ahmadinejad as the unquestionable winner of the election. Calling the protesters “people with no insight,” he ordered their suppression with an iron fist.

Now that Ahmadinejad has ignored Khamenei’s advice, one might ask, who is it exactly that lacks insight?

  1. A Heavy Blow To The Principlists

Ahmadinejad’s insistence on registering as a presidential candidate alongside his close ally and protégé, Hameed Baqai, and avoiding the main strata of the so-called Principlists, will further weaken the status and influence of the loosely united front of conservatives.

Although Ahmadinejad will lose a significant chunk of conservatives’ support, he will certainly gain the support of a considerable part of their social base. Therefore, the conservatives will be left with no other option than demarking their territory from the former president’s. Any confrontation between the two camps would further divide and weaken the conservatives and the main social body that supports them.

  1. A Blow To The Conservatives Candidates’ Votes

Ahmadinejad and Baqai’s candidacy, if approved by the Council of Guardians, would harm the conservative (Principlist) candidates more than any other candidate in the coming election. And if the Council of Guardians disqualifies Ahmadinejad and his ally, the Principlists will have a hard time luring disappointed supporters back to the conservative mainstream.

  1. Backing Baqai Against Rowhani

Should either Ahmadinejad or Baqai be approved as a candidate, the conservatives would lose but also somewhat gain from their orchestrated campaign against incumbent President Hassan Rowhani. For the conservatives at the center of power, a campaign by Ahmadinejad or Baqai could hurt the chances of a Principlist candidate but would be even more detrimental to the incumbent president’s campaign.

  1. Disqualifying Ahmadinejad And Baqai

Disqualifying a former president would not be an unprecedented move by the Council of Guardians. The vetting body disqualified Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2013, ignoring his previous two consecutive terms as president and his post as head of the Expediency Council. But Ahmadinejad’s disqualification would not end his career as an influential personality in Iranian politics. He would remain on the political stage as the most prominent character to have been disqualified by the Council of Guardians.

Ahmadinejad is a maverick politician, notorious for his love of the spotlight. Thus his mere presence as a candidate is a win for him, regardless of whether he is approved by the vetting council.

  1. An Exciting Multi-Polar Election For The Ruling System

Regardless of the paradoxical challenges facing the Council of Guardians in approving or disqualifying Ahmadinejad, the May 19 election will be an exciting multi-polar race. The very presence of Ahmadinejad facing such candidates as Ebrahim Ra’issi (custodian of the Imam Reza shrine and president of a multibillion-dollar religious fund known as Astan-i Qods-i Razavi), Mohammad-Baqir Qalibaf (mayor of Tehran), and incumbent President Hassan Rowhani is certainly more than enough to make the coming election much more exciting than the previous one.

This should mean a higher turnout, which would undoubtedly be a development welcomed by Khamenei.

  1. Immoral Political Behavior

A lack of morality in politics is par for the course for those who present themselves as something different than they truly are. As a rule, these kinds of actors say things they do not believe in, and they are experts at committing themselves to outlandish promises that are impossible to fulfill. Ahmadinejad’s highly questionable two-term presidency is the reflection of such an approach. Last winter, he declared he would never back any candidate regardless of their partisanship or factional leanings, and yet now he is supporting Baqai.

  1. A Player For The Crucial Moment

Regardless of what observers may think of Ahmadinejad’s political behavior and discourse, let alone his expertise or capability of running the government, it is undeniable that he will become a significant symbol of an influential political faction.

Through his outlandish generosity in wasting billions of dollars of Iran’s oil and gas income on cash subsidies for citizens, Ahmadinejad has been successful in attracting the support of some segments of society. Coupled with his political audacity, this has transformed him into an effective character capable of maneuvering in crucial moments.

Ahmadinejad’s tenacity as a wild card in Iranian politics and future elections cannot be ignored.

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    Morteza Kazemian

    Morteza Kazemian is an Iranian journalist and political analyst based in Paris, who contributes to Radio Farda.