The candidate registration process for the Iranian presidential elections, scheduled for May 19, opened with a bang. Contradicting the public position of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, former president and political hawk Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday added his name to the list of 197 candidates, including eight women, who had already enrolled.
The uproar was enormous. Just last week, Ahmadinejad said he had “no plans to introduce myself but to support [his former vice president] Hamid Baghaei as the best candidate.” Among astonished election workers Wednesday, he said he felt bound to the promise made to Khamenei — who considered his candidacy as “polarizing” to the nation — but stated that the Supreme Leader’s statement was not a ban.
”I reiterate that I am committed with my moral promise and I am here to enroll only to support my brother Baghaei,” he added. All candidacies, Ahmadinejad and all the other challengers of the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, must be approved by the Guardian Council. The council will announce the list of “approved” names on April 27, and their decision could be weighed by Khamenei’s advice.
Now, the actions behind the scenes of this move by former president are being analyzed. Some would say his sudden decision was triggered by the U.S. bombing on Syria, which portends a further stiffening of the Trump administration against Iran, an ally of Damascus. The U.S. president has always raged against the 2015 international agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, on which the moderate Rouhani has built much of his political fortunes. But things are not going the way the president expected. The sanctions regime that crushed for years the Iranian economy is officially over, but the West’s rush to invest in Iran, and the final opening in Tehran, expected by Rouhani and his supporters, did not occur. Unemployment (at 12 percent) weighs heavily, and there has been limited growth, in part caused by low oil prices.
On Wednesday, some of the newspapers that support Rouhani, like Aftabe-e Yazd, Arman and Etemad, took pains to explain that the president had never promised to solve in the first months of his term all the economic problems of the country, as claimed by his opponents. Rouhani remains ahead in voter preference polls, but his advantage is affected by Trump’s bellicose statements, which raise fears among the Iranian people. They fear that economic sanctions may be reinstated, in the best-case scenario, or a war, in the worst-case scenario.
These fears are not excessive, in view of the statements by the U.S. officials. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley proclaimed during a meeting Security Council meeting that “Iran is dumping fuel on the flames of this war in Syria so it can expand its own reach.” She said she was “looking for partners” to reverse such trends.
Ahmadinejad may believe his candidacy will give strength to the conservative camp in the attack on Rouhani’s moderate line in internal and foreign policy. However, after his entry into the race, the conservatives were the ones throwing accusations and invectives; some of them think going against the advice of the supreme leader is an outrage. “With today’s move, you broke my faith in you,” wrote Mehdi Koochakzadeh, a former MP loyal to Ahmadinejad, on social media. ”It’s the end of Ahmadinejad,” declared Elyas Naderan, another former loyalist, in a tweet.
With great difficulty, conservatives are trying to unite around a single candidate. On Saturday, they held a mass rally during which they promoted a shortlist of five names, which will be reduced to one before the elections. The favorite is Ebrahim Raisi, a judge who currently heads Imam Reza, a powerful charitable foundation in the holy city of Mashhad. Behind him is the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, in his third bid for the presidency.
With his candidacy, Ahmadinejad could further disrupt the hard-line front. And so, a theory that seems political fiction has started going around: Ahmadinejad did not post his candidacy against the wishes but at the request of Khamenei, who is willing to lend a hand to Rouhani’s shaky re-election by splitting the conservative camp.