Ahmadinejad defies ayatollah in bid to return to presidential seat
TEHRAN | Stunning his countrymen and disregarding the words of Iran’s most powerful ayatollah, polarizing former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registered Wednesday to run in the country’s May presidential election and upended a contest largely expected to be won by moderate incumbent President Hassan Rouhani.
Though Mr. Ahmadinejad still might not be approved for the ballot by Iran’s clerically overseen government, merely the mention of the Holocaust-questioning populist might energize discontent hard-liners who want a Persian and nationalist answer to the more confrontational policies of the new Trump administration.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s candidacy also comes as President Trump has threatened a reappraisal of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and as fissures still linger inside Iran after his contested 2009 re-election, which brought massive unrest and street violence.
Stunned election officials were seen processing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s paperwork on Wednesday. Asked about Mr. Ahmadinejad’s decision, one Tehranbased analyst offered a blunt assessment.
“It was an organized mutiny against Iran’s ruling system,” said Soroush Farhadian, who backs reformists.
Ever the showman, a smiling Mr. Ahmadinejad made “V for Victory” hand signals and walked his former Vice President Hamid Baghaei through the process of registering first. Just when it appeared Mr. Ahmadinejad would be leaving, he turned around and returned to the Interior Ministry’s registration desk, pulling out his identification documents with a flourish in front of a melee of shouting journalists.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s decision shocked Iran as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered a thinly veiled warning in September that his candidacy would create a “polarized situation” that would be “harmful for the county.” Many Iranians blame Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and policies as contributing to Iran’s isolation and economy deterioration during his two terms in president.
Mr. Ahmadinejad on Wednesday described comments by the supreme leader as “just advice” in a news conference shortly after submitting his registration, advice that “does not prevent me from running.”
There was no immediate reaction from the supreme leader’s office. While Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say on all state matters, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s relationship with him had strained by the end of his time in power.
“It’s in clear defiance of what the supreme leader had stated very openly and very publicly,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Corruption allegations surrounded Mr. Ahmadinejad’s 2005-2013 presidency and two of his former vice presidents were jailed, including Mr. Baghaei. Iran’s economy also suffered under heavy international sanctions during his administration because of Western suspicions that Tehran was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Internationally, Mr. Ahmadinejad also remains known for repeatedly questioning the scale of the Holocaust and predicting Israel’s demise.
The onetime mayor Tehran does, however, maintain popularity among the poor for his populist policies and subsidies he offered while in office.
More than 280 people have filed as possible candidates since registration began Tuesday, including 13 women.
Under Iran’s electoral system, all applicants must be vetted by the Guardian Council, a clerical body that will announce a final list of candidates by April 27. The council normally does not approve dissidents or women for the formal candidate list.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s candidacy may be a stunt to ensure at least one of his acolytes makes the cut. Mr. Ahmadinejad himself described his decision to run as intended to help Mr. Baghaei. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, another of the former president’s close allies, also registered Wednesday.
The May 19 election is seen by many in Iran as a referendum on the 2015 nuclear agreement and other efforts to improve the country’s sanctions-hobbled economy. Under the nuclear deal, Iran agreed to curb its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
President Rouhani is widely expected to seek re-election after his administration negotiated the atomic accord, though he has not filed or formally declared his candidacy. Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric close to the supreme leader, also has declared his candidacy and is seen by some as the choice of the Revolutionary Guard, the powerful paramilitary organization that also has vast economic holdings.
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (right) unexpectedly filed to run for president in Iran. This move contradicts a recommendation from the supreme leader for Mr. Ahmadinejad to stay out of the race. The presidential election will be held in May.