I still remember the first time the current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appeared in Iran’s presidential race in 2005. I was returning by train from Berlin to Nuremburg, and I bought copies of Asharq al-Awsat and the International Herald Tribune. All expectations prior to the election concentrated on former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who at the time was among the critics of the reform movement, and on his young rival Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, who was portrayed as a candidate who was close to the Supreme Leader, enjoying the support of some leaders in the Revolutionary Guard.
Ahmadinejad’s victory was a surprise in itself; his rivals were more efficient and had a stronger presence in the political scene. Individuals such as Mehdi Karroubi and Ali Larijani would have been more successful if the competition was based only on academic qualifications and work experience, yet Ahmadinejad snatched the presidency. This was even despite the fact that the Islamic Society of Engineers, of which Ahmadinejad was a member, did not give him their support; rather he won as a candidate for the Islamic Abadgaran Alliance (or the Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran).
When Ahmadinejad became president there was little information about his policies or his presidential program, all that was known about him was that he was the former mayor of Tehran who had gained widespread popularity through his focus on cleaning up the capital and fighting against corruption in the mayoral institution. Indeed, it was said that he was the best mayor the capital had since the revolution.
Ahmadinejad was born to a poor family, yet some of his relatives had links with Supreme Leader Khamenei during the opposition years. When the revolution erupted, Ahmadinejad joined the Revolutionary Guard, and progressed through the ranks until he was appointed Governor of Ardabil province. However, with time, he returned to university as a lecturer, where he achieved a PhD. But Ahmadinejad’s name truly rose to prominence at the height of the clashes between the reformist and conservative trends post-2002, where he was instrumental in organizing and supporting the conservatives in the 2004 parliamentary elections. His relationship with the Supreme Leader was not firmly established until after he became mayor of Tehran in 2003, but even then the relationship did not develop to explain a figure like Ahmadinejad being put forward as a presidential candidate.
Much has been written about that sudden transformation [from mayor to President]. There are those who believe that the Supreme Leader originally intended to support the candidacy of Ghalibaf, but with the charges of corruption revolving around his brother, the regime was prompted to support Ahmadinejad at the last minute, despite opposition from some elements within. The other explanation for the rise of Ahmadinejad is that the Supreme Leader wanted a weak and obscure character to become president, to allow him to scale back the role of the presidency, a role which both Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami had added a lot of importance to.
Whatever the reason for Ahmadinejad’s victory in the first term, the support and assistance that he received in the 2009 elections served as clear evidence that he had the support of the Supreme Leader, as well as the Revolutionary Guard. However, in his second term, Ahmadinejad faced much marginalization and criticism, even from within the conservative trend he was affiliated to. In July 2009, he was forced to relinquish his vice president Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, and when he tried to extend his influence by dismissing some state officials affiliated to the Supreme Leader’s institution – such as Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi in May 2011 – the result did not end in his favor, and the Supreme Leader forced Ahmadinejad to retract his decision.
Ahmadinejad tried to protest by boycotting parliamentary sessions, but he received a clear message that if he continued with his opposition, the Supreme Leader’s affiliates in parliament would perhaps call for a vote of no confidence against his government, and resort to early elections. Ahmadinejad retreated after that, unhappy at the bullying he and his close associates were being subject to from his opponents within the conservative establishment, in particular the accusation that he had created a deviant and corrupt offshoot within the regime. It is true that Ahmadinejad was able to dismiss Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in a humiliating manner during an official visit to Senegal, in December 2010, but afterwards Mottaki did not hesitate to form the “United Front of Principlists”, with the blessing of the Supreme Leader, which went on to achieve fourth place in the recent Shura Council elections.
How did Ahmadinejad’s popularity rating plummet from being a president with close ties to the Supreme Leader and the conservative trend, to a weak and defeated individual merely seeing out the remaining months of his presidency? Ahmadinejad is a victim of his own ambition. The president, who was entirely dependent upon the guidance of the Supreme Leader at the beginning of his reign, transformed over time into a demagogic leader, heading a popular trend representing the rural poor, and relying heavily on religious discourse blending Persian nationalism with Mahdist prophecies. Furthermore, his hardline views on the nuclear issue, and his inflammatory statements in support of the resistance in Lebanon and Gaza, provided him with a significant presence in the region, especially among supporters of the radical line.
However, Ahmadinejad’s growing popularity also had a negative impact, especially when some of those close to him tried to invest in this popularity and turn it into a major political force in the country. Perhaps this explains the efforts of Ahmadinejad’s opponents – with the support of the Supreme Leader – to reduce the President’s powers, prosecute his men for charges of corruption, and launch a continuous media campaign against his record in power. The results of the recent elections are a strong indication of Ahmadinejad’s waning influence. The regime deliberately supported new parties and alliances in the electoral competition, and the candidates with the least loyalty to the Walih al-Faqih [Guardian of the Jurists] lost out in the ballot boxes, which prompted some – who were allies of Ahmadinejad in the 2009 elections – to distance themselves from him in the recent elections.
In an interview conducted by Amir Taheri with former Iranian President Abulhassan Banisadr, during his exile in Paris in 1981, Banisadr said that the Mullahs would not – or rather could not – reform the manner in which the state was run. He added that he himself enjoyed great domestic popularity and that his supporters were waiting for the right moment to initiate mass protests, and that he was confident of the support of the military establishment in the end. As for the late Imam Khomeini, Banisadr said: [if he were in power] “I would transfer him to Qom and prevent him from contact with any political activities” (The Majalla 14th August 1981). Of course, Khomeini remained as the Supreme Leader until his death, whilst Banisadr was exiled and isolated.
Ahmadinejad’s problem was that he thought he could remain as the Iranian president, and that the Supreme Leader needed him in order to confront the opposition, but what we have seen recently is that the Supreme Leader has regained full control of the parliament. Now he is able – as he has previously hinted – to abolish the position of president and be content with a prime minister from the parliamentary majority. He is even able to dismiss the President at any moment without recourse to any legislation.
The researcher Juan Cole says: “This puzzling emphasis on Ahmadinejad comes despite the president’s relative lack of power in the Iranian system. The commander in chief of the armed forces is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Who sets nuclear policy? Ali Khamenei. In Iran, the “president” is more like a vice president (think Joe Biden) than a real executive”.
There is no doubt that the issue of Ahmadinejad’s departure from the political arena is a foregone conclusion, however the secessionist regime in Iran would be posed with a real challenge were the Supreme Leader to die or a conflict to erupt over his succession. The Supreme Leader currently directly controls the army and the Revolutionary Guard establishment, he has three loyal parties representing the majority in the Council of Ministers, and if he manages to abolish the presidential position, there will no longer be any institution outside the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader’s office.
When Ayatollah Beheshti was assassinated in June 1981, along with a large number of leaders of the Islamic Republican Party, it was said that no one remained from the secret Council of the Islamic Revolution except Ayatollah Montazeri, and it only took a few years for the regime to get rid of the rest of its rivals. As for today, the Supreme Leader is– perhaps for the first time – solely in power without any rival. In his inaugural speech as the Supreme Leader in June 1989, Khamenei said: “I am an individual with many faults and shortcomings and truly a minor seminarian”.