Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sprang a surprise when he registered himself as a candidate in Iran’s presidential election scheduled for May 19. After leaving the office of President in 2013 at the end of two controversial terms, the firebrand populist has been largely inactive in politics.
He began as a favourite of the ayatollahs, but during his second term he had a turbulent relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who asked him not to run for President again. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s defiant return to the race shows the growing significance of hard-line politics in a charged region.
As successor to the mild-mannered reformist Mohammad Khatami, he toed a strident line on Israel and the U.S., refusing to meaningfully negotiate with the West over Iran’s nuclear programme despite crippling economic sanctions. This election is crucial for Iran as it is seen as a referendum on the nuclear deal it reached in 2015 with global powers.
President Hassan Rouhani, who championed the deal on the promise that better ties with the West would help improve Iran’s economy, is expected to seek re-election. He faces challenges from hardliners, who say Iran needs a stronger leader who can stand up to Donald Trump’s America. The rising anti-Iran rhetoric of the Trump administration, which imposed new sanctions on Tehran over a missile test, has given the hardliners a fresh handle.
Iran’s election is a complex process that is partially managed and partially reflects the popular will. At least 120 people have registered as candidates. The clerical Guardian Council will vet the candidates and publish the final list on April 27, removing most dissidents. Thereafter the election is expected to be free. It is not clear if Mr. Ahmadinejad intends to stay as a candidate or plans to shape the election agenda in favour of the hardliners. As of now, the most powerful conservative candidate is Ebrahim Raisi, a close ally of Ayatollah Khamenei and a clear favourite of the clerical establishment.
For the conservatives, this is an opportunity to reclaim the presidency — one of the three main pillars of the Iranian state, but the only one with a popular mandate — and reclaim legitimacy for their hard-line agenda. For the moderates, the challenge is to push back the strongman narrative of the conservatives and shape the agenda around economic development and incremental freedoms, as opposed to strengthening theocracy and a stand-off with the West. In 2013, Mr. Rouhani had shown the political aptitude to stitch together an alliance with moderates as well as conservatives who had fallen out with the clerical establishment, while cashing in on popular impatience with the Ahmadinejad government.
It is time the political climate changed. It may take greater political guile for Mr. Rouhani to withstand the hardliners’ campaign at a time when economic troubles and regional challenges remain and the U.S. is again taking a confrontationist stance towards Tehran.
Source: The Hindu, April 14, 2017