Iran’s Ah­madine­jad eye­ing come­back

Lesotho Times - - International -

TEHRAN — Iran’s for­mer Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad has launched a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign ahead of Fe­bru­ary’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in what could prove a chal­lenge to the mod­er­ates be­hind a land­mark nu­clear agree­ment reached last month.

Few ex­pect a re­run of Mr Ah­madine­jad’s sur­prise vic­tory in the 2005 elec­tions, which kicked off an eight-year pres­i­dency marked by con­fronta­tion with the West, in­cen­di­ary rhetoric to­ward Is­rael and re­fusal to com­pro­mise on the dis­puted nu­clear pro­gram.

Many for­mer al­lies have turned on Mr Ah­madine­jad, and two of his for­mer vice pres­i­dents have been jailed for cor­rup­tion.

But the un­apolo­getic pop­ulist is be­lieved to com­mand strong sup­port in the coun­try­side, and could be seen by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei as a coun­ter­bal­ance to the re­form­ers who have tried to re­verse Mr Ah­madine­jad’s con­fronta­tional legacy since the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, a mod­er­ate, two years ago.

At a gath­er­ing of his sup­port­ers Thurs­day, Ah­madine­jad (58) broke two years of si­lence, vow­ing to “re­de­fine rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals” laid out by the leader of Iran’s 1979 revo­lu­tion, the late Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini.

“God will­ing, vic­tory and a very bright fu­ture awaits us. How­ever, there will be bumps and sa­tanic ob­sta­cles in our path,” the diminu­tive for­mer leader, sport­ing his trade­mark close-cropped beard and sports coat, told some 400 sup­port­ers in Tehran. “One should not for­get that the US is our en­emy.”

He called on his sup­port­ers to “be­gin work­ing en­er­get­i­cally in the prov­inces.” He re­mains pop­u­lar among the ru­ral poor be­cause of his gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to pro­vide monthly cash hand­outs af­ter cut­ting food and energy sub­si­dies, and be­cause of his con­dem­na­tion of cap­i­tal­ism and in­jus­tice.

Dur­ing his pres­i­dency he re­ceived thou­sands of letters a day from or­di­nary Ira­ni­ans, and ear­lier this week peo­ple lined up out­side his Tehran res­i­dence to ask for as­sis­tance, a re­flec­tion of his pop­ulist touch.

But many mid­dle and up­per class Ira­ni­ans, even in small towns, blame the crip­pling in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions over Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram on his bom­bas­tic anti-western rhetoric. And the cur­rent gov­ern­ment is in the process of re­mov­ing mil­lions of wealthy cit­i­zens from the wel­fare rolls to ease a bud­get cri­sis caused in part by the sanc­tions and plung­ing oil prices.

A coun­ter­bal­ance

Mr Ah­madine­jad has not com­mented on the nu­clear deal, which would lift painful in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions in re­turn for Iran curb­ing its nu­clear ac­tiv­i­ties. He could do lit­tle to de­rail the agree­ment, par­tic­u­larly if it en­joys the sup­port of the supreme leader. But a strong show­ing by Mr Ah­madine­jad’s sup­port­ers in Fe­bru­ary’s elec­tion could hin­der any push for a broader rap­proche­ment be­tween Iran and the United States, and lay the ground­work for his re­turn to the pres­i­dency.

For­mer Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Sadeq Khar­razi, a re­formist politi­cian, said Mr Ah­madine­jad’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer is over but that “Ah­madine­jadism” — his unique meld­ing of eco­nomic pop­ulism with a hawk­ish for­eign pol­icy — re­mains a “threat to the coun­try.”

In the ab­sence of re­li­able polling, it’s im­pos­si­ble to gauge Mr Ah­madine­jad’s level of sup­port. Any come­back would de­pend on Khamenei, who along with his hand-picked ap­pointees vets can­di­dates for par­lia­men­tary and pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

“The key is the rul­ing sys­tem’s de­ci­sion on how to deal with Ah­madine­jad,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Saeed Leilaz said.

“He can’t reap­pear with­out ap­proval from the top ech­e­lons of power,” he added. “His come­back means Khamenei wants to use him as a coun­ter­bal­ance to con­trol re­formists in the up­com­ing elec­tions.”

The un­prece­dented nu­clear deal has bol­stered Mr Rouhani and Iran’s mod­er­ate camp. Mr Leilaz said the rul­ing sys­tem hopes par­lia­men­tary elec­tions will slow its rise by di­vid­ing the seats more or less equally among mod­er­ates, con­ser­va­tives and hard-lin­ers. Con­ser­va­tives fear that the mod­er­ates will open the coun­try to an in­flux of Western cul­ture that would di­lute its Is­lamic val­ues.

Hard-lin­ers fear that the nu­clear deal will lead to a broader rap­proche­ment with the United States, which they still view as a “Great Satan,” de­ter­mined to dis­man­tle the Is­lamic re­pub­lic.

Many con­ser­va­tives and hard-lin­ers turned on Ah­madine­jad in the lat­ter years of his rule, but they could come to see him as a much­needed ally, fear­ing a re­peat of the land­slide vic­tory in the 2000 elec­tions by re­formists com­mit­ted to trans­form­ing the Is­lamic re­pub­lic into a Western-style democ­racy.

Con­ser­va­tive law­maker Gholam Ali Had­dad Adel, whose daugh­ter is mar­ried to Khamenei’s son, said the mod­er­ates are more in­ter­ested in bring­ing back Mcdon­ald’s restau­rants than in coun­ter­ing the Us-backed and Saudiled air cam­paign against Shi­ite rebels in Ye­men.

Ac­count­able “Un­for­tu­nately, some are em­brac­ing Amer­ica and open­ing their arms to Amer­i­can com­pa­nies,” he said.

No one could ac­cuse Mr Ah­madine­jad of be­ing soft on Amer­ica, but he was widely blamed for the eco­nomic cri­sis that emerged near the end of his rule af­ter tough in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions were im­posed in 2012.

Af­ter he stepped down the fol­low­ing year, even hard-line media out­lets said he should be held ac­count­able for his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mis­man­age­ment of the econ­omy. The Ja­van news­pa­per called on him to apol­o­gize to Ira­ni­ans on na­tional TV, and the weekly Yale­sarat said he should stand trial as a les­son to oth­ers.

But, Mehrdad Khadir, a jour­nal­ist for a mod­er­ate news­pa­per, said Mr Ah­madine­jad and his al­lies could win a mi­nor­ity of seats in Fe­bru­ary’s elec­tions, and with Khamenei’s sup­port he could seek the pres­i­dency in 2017.

“The lower classes, who are easily at­tracted with sim­ple slo­gans, might still like Ah­madine­jad’s style, even if they don’t nec­es­sar­ily fa­vor him in per­son,” he said.

“If (the supreme leader) feels that Ah­madine­jad’s run­ning for an elec­tion can cre­ate en­thu­si­asm and a heated com­pe­ti­tion, he will welcome it, pro­vided that (Ah­madine­jad) is not linked to the fi­nan­cial scan­dal cases.”

Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Sadeq Zibakalam says mod­er­ates shouldn’t write off the for­mer hard­line leader. “Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate Ah­madine­jad,” he said. — Reuters

For­mer Ira­nian Pres­i­dent mah­moud Ah­madine­jad (sec­ond left) reads a pe­ti­tion for help from a woman while oth­ers wait in queue out­side his house in north­east­ern Tehran on mon­day.

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