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Why is Ahmadinejad Running for President of Iran, Again?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the firebrand former Iranian president, stunned observers last week by submitting his name as a candidate in his country’s presidential elections next month, over the objections of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ahmadinejad, who served as president from 2005 to 2013, is a hardliner, notorious for questioning the extent of the Holocaust, making bellicose statements about Israel, and accelerating his nation’s efforts to achieve nuclear weapons capability.

By announcing his candidacy, Ahmadinejad is challenging President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who helped secure the 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and its allies. The pact lifted international sanctions against Iran.   

But Ahmadinejad’s intentions aren’t clear.  He has been quoted as saying he registered simply to support former deputy Hamid Baghaei as a candidate.

Khamenei had ordered Ahmadinejad not to run, warning that his candidacy would polarize Iran. At first, Ahmadinejad said he would follow the order, but later, he amended his statement to dismiss the Supreme Leader’s comments as “just advice.”

Presidential candidates must be approved by the 12-member Guardian Council, half of whose members are theologians picked by the Supreme Leader and the other half nominated by Iran’s judiciary, with parliamentary approval. The council is scheduled to announce the final roster of candidates on April 27.

To understand the implications of Ahmenijad’s actions, Steve Hirsch, The Cipher Brief’s senior national security editor, interviewed John Nixon, a senior leadership analyst with the CIA from 1998 to 2011, and Mehdi Khalaji, Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Cipher Brief: Why do you think Ahmadinejad is running? Is he bolstering the candidacy of conservatives such as Hamid Baghaei, as he claims? Does he hope to attain the presidency himself, challenge the authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or something else?

John Nixon: Ahmadinejad’s brand of populism may have already used up its appeal. If I had to guess at this point, I think his candidacy is a storm in a teacup, not to be taken too seriously.

However, I think Ahmadinejad is looking to achieve a few objectives by declaring his candidacy.

There is the element of Ahmadinejad just wanting to be relevant again. Ahmadinejad does have a core constituency of oddballs and hardliners within the political establishment, clergy, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who may be looking to him to move the country in another direction. Likewise, Ahmadinejad probably still retains popularity among the hinterland voters of Iran, those who feel neglected by Tehran and the other major urban centers. However, Ahmadinejad’s grandiose political plans have seen diminished returns as time has passed him by.

Ahmadinejad looks like he is daring the regime to disqualify him, which could then make Baghaei’s candidacy more compelling. He may also be looking to play the spoiler – the kind of candidate who can discredit the electoral process in Iran, [a stance that] could be seen as a challenge to Khamenei, who has always made it a point to highlight the importance of the elections, to counter American claims that Iran is ruled by an unelected elite.

Ahmadinejad may be looking to leverage his candidacy against Khamenei and his allies by threatening to disunite the conservative camp.  In so doing, Ahmadinejad may be looking for some other unspecified perk, other than the presidency, in exchange for his cooperation.

Mehdi Khalaji: Ahmadinejad does not have anything to lose. He and his key cabinet members have open legal cases [before] the judiciary for financial corruption. His first vice president as well as Baghaei were imprisoned after Ahmadinejad left the office. Entering the race is probably the only chance he has to return to the government, either himself, through Baghaei, or by using it as a leverage against the next President in order to gain a position in next cabinet.

TCB: Are we seeing shifts in Iranian politics that are important to the United States and other nations, and if so, what are they? Is Ahmadinejad’s decision a reflection of those trends?

JN: No, I don’t believe that his candidacy represents any significant shift in Iranian presidential politics. Ahmadinejad will be just another of the thousands who will apply to run for the presidency, albeit one who has a very high name recognition.

MK: This is less about foreign policy and more about Ahmadinejad. He has surprised even his former conservative supporters. Hardliners are looking for an opportunity to isolate him thoroughly without an unaffordable cost.

TCB: What are the odds he will stay in the race and, if so, that he would win or have another effect on the contest? Might he split the conservative vote against Rouhani? What should the outside world conclude if your prognosis is correct?

MK: He can win the election only if he portrays himself as an opposition to the entire regime. This cannot happen easily. He frequently makes statements that can be interpreted as criticism, that targets the hardcore of the regime and its Supreme Leader.

TCB: What is the significance of Ahmadinejad’s rejection of Khamenei’s order not to run?  Is this a challenge to Khamenei’s authority?  Is Khamenei right that this candidacy will polarize the country? How does this situation affect the ultimate decision by the Guardian Council whether to include Ahmadinejad in the final list of candidates?

MK: Regardless of what many analysts say, his decision to run for election was regarded by ordinary people as defying Khamenei. This is exactly what he wants. It is difficult to predict the Guardian Council’s decision, but some evidence shows that the council’s preference is to disqualify him unless there will be a serious concern about its cost. Disqualifying him would tarnish the image of both Khamenei and Islamic Republic inside and outside the country.

TCB: How should other nations in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, react to this announcement, as well as Russia and Syria?  Does his candidacy raise the possibility or probability of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities?

JN: I think it is just too early to assess whether Ahmadinejad’s candidacy will have a profound effect on the such things as the nuclear deal, and business ties between Iran and the West, for instance. If I had to guess at this point, I think his candidacy is a storm in a teacup, not to be taken too seriously. Are other countries paying attention? Probably, but I don’t think there is any evidence yet to suggest that Ahmadinejad’s candidacy will amount to much. Israel, Syria, and the neighboring Gulf Arab countries are probably paying attention to Ahmadinejad’s announcement, but I would imagine they are probably coming to the same conclusion – that his ability to re-capture the presidency, at this point in time, seems far-fetched.

MK: Whoever becomes president will not be able to change the decision-making process in the system. The president’s authority is limited even in the executive branch of government; more importantly he has little influence on the Iranian government’s foreign, nuclear, and military policy. What matters for the world is usually what the president has less influence over.

What is more important than the presidential election will be Khamenei’s death. This is the only development in the regime that could be transformational.

Source The Cipherbrief

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