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How Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Became a ‘Liberal Democrat’

An expert’s point of view on a current event.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two terms as Iranian president, from 2005 to 2013, are best remembered for his ideological zeal, aggressive foreign policy, and furious speeches against the United States and Israel. Since leaving office, however, he has mostly leveraged his skills of populist agitation against the Iranian system of government. This latter campaign reached a culmination this month when he registered to run for president again.

As expected, Ahmadinejad was ultimately disqualified from running. But this counts as a victory for the former president. He didn’t want to win the presidency this year—his plan is precisely to be prevented from winning, the better to present himself as a victim of a fundamentally unjust regime.

Upon registering for this year’s election at the Interior Ministry, Ahmadinejad immediately threatened to boycott the election should the Guardian Council—the conservative-led body in charge of vetting the candidates—decide to disqualify him. He also made it clear that he would also not endorse any other candidate.

Conservative figures were quick to react, criticizing Ahmadinejad for challenging the same electoral system he had earlier exploited twice to become president. But the former president had no desire to stop irritating his former allies. Instead, in a subsequent interview, he called himself a “liberal democrat,” a term often used by Iran’s hard-liners to discredit their opponents. He also went on to say that “I am not the Ahmadinejad you have in mind.” This latter part is the key to understanding his message: that he is no longer the person we used to know.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad began his transformation a decade ago, during his second term as president. His alienation from the Iranian government’s conservative camp, including the supreme leader, was triggered by his expansive interpretation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s unequivocal support for him in the aftermath of the rigged 2009 election. Ahmadinejad seemed to interpret this as a green light to do as he wished in office. The result was serious friction between his administration and almost all other centers of power in Iran, including the judiciary, the parliament, the IRGC, and even Khamenei himself. For instance, he accused the IRGC of “smuggling” and the judiciary of violating the constitution. He also defied—but eventually complied with—Khamenei’s order not to fire Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi.

What Ahmadinejad had probably not considered was that the same conservative camp that suppressed the Green Movement in his favor would do the same to any other potential troublemakers. Upon the end of his second term in office in 2013, Ahmadinejad decided to maintain his hold on power by handing over the presidency to a member of his inner circle. He threw his support behind his close advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei’s bid for the presidency, even accompanying Mashaei to the interior ministry to register as a candidate.

Mashaei, however, who was detested by the conservatives for his controversial positions about Islam and the clergy, failed to cross the barrier of the Guardian Council. He ended up in prison four years later for charges such as “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the system.” Hamid Baghaei, another close aide to Ahmadinejad, met a similar fate shortly after he was barred from candidacy in the 2017 presidential election. That was the same election in which the Guardian Council also disqualified Ahmadinejad after he ignored Khamenei’s advice not to run. By then, it had already become clear that neither he nor anyone close to him would have any chance to assume top executive posts in the country.

When Ahmadinejad reached the conclusion that he would not find a way back to power through the system, he decided to open a path around it. Over the past four years, he has crossed many of the Iranian political system’s clearest red lines, from supporting the 2018 and 2019 protests to speaking of “systematic corruption” in Iran and criticizing the country’s intervention in Syria against the will of the Syrian people. He went so far as to claim that he had nothing to do with suppressing the Green Movement protesters, suggesting instead it was an “organized gang” within the security system that resorted to violence against the people. Simultaneously, he embarked on a vigorous social media performance to depict himself as a modern politician who uses new technologies to deliver messages of “peace, freedom, and justice” to the world.

Ahmadinejad’s rejected candidacy should be seen as the latest phase of this long-term rebranding campaign. He understood the Guardian Council was highly unlikely to qualify him to run this year. But a rejection was exactly what he wants, as it can help him project the image of an opposition figure who tirelessly strives to bring about change and has no fear of directly confronting the Iranian establishment.

Ahmadinejad no doubt understands he is unlikely to ever become president again—but his ambitions extend far beyond that office. If anything, he seems to be waiting for the power vacuum that is likely to emerge after the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. In a situation where there’s no organized political opposition inside the country and the foreign-based opposition groups are either highly fragmented or lack popular support, he wants to assume the role of a national anti-establishment leader. According to Abdolreza Davari, Ahmadinejad’s former advisor who is now one of his staunch critics, the former president believes that the Islamic Republic will collapse with Khamenei’s death. However, contrary to his claims of being a liberal democrat, his ideal replacement for the current political system would be another type of Islamic government without velayat-e faqih or the supreme leadership at its top.

To succeed, Ahmadinejad will need to broaden his political base. Currently, the educated middle class—the reformist camp’s traditional social base—seems to have lost hope of working through the political system after witnessing President Hassan Rouhani’s disappointing record and the growing authority wielded by hard-liners and the security services. Ahmadinejad’s goal seems to be to gradually win the allegiance of the lower classes and, ideally, the younger generation that has no direct memory of his presidency and the Green Movement by offering constant rhetorical promises of justice, freedom, and fights against corruption. If history is any example, he may well end up successfully rebranding himself as a champion of change. Late Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president against whom the reform movement was formed in 1997, managed to rebrand himself as a supporter of reform by 2005 and even a reformist leader by the time he died in 2017.

Ahmadinejad is right: He is not the person the world came to know years ago. Once an ideological fanatic and an inexperienced president, Ahmadinejad has now become a Machiavellian politician who knows how to play a long game. We’ll soon know whether he’s earned sufficient momentum to have a chance of eventually ending up on top.

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