Hold onto your hats, because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has resurfaced!
The United States isn’t the only country gearing up for what could be a game-changing election. The Islamic Republic of Iran is still over a year away from its presidential election, but rumors are already starting that a very familiar face may be appearing on the campaign trail: Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In case your Iranian political trivia is rusty, let’s backtrack a bit, because it’s important to remember why this guy got run out of office the first time. Ahmadinejad was first elected in 2005 when he beat out the pragmatic establishment candidate Hashemi Rafsanjani to succeed Reformist icon Mohammed Khatami. Ahmadinejad had been the mayor of Tehran and was a relatively little known figure at the time of his election. But it became clear quickly that the pious and, in a sense, populist president was quite the firebrand. He made a name for himself on the international stage by questioning the Holocaust and rhetorically attacking Israel. He was a fount of incendiary sound bites, including that time he said there are no homosexuals in Iran. Domestically, he sparred with both Reformist and hardline officials over policies, despite being reigned in by the labyrinthian Iranian government and a lot of highly placed rivals. (Seriously, no one liked this guy).
Ahmadinejad’s presidency went from blunder to major problem in 2009 when he ran against wildly popular Reformist candidate Mir Houssain Mousavi. When Ahmadinejad was announced as winner of the election, Mousavi and fellow candidate Karroubi took to the streets and kick started widespread protests. A violent crackdown followed and both Mousavi and Karroubi were put under house arrest, where they remain today.
But it seems the government took notice, particularly after a slew of protests instigated the Arab Spring movement in 2011. Ahmadinejad was got sidelined while the typically under-the-radar Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took a more public role. By the time the 2013 presidential election rolled around, cleric Hassan Rouhani was swept to office on a wave of public support and a campaign predicated on greater international involvement and moderation – including greater gender equality and economic stability. After leaving office, Ahmadinejad returned to teaching engineering.
And with that we arrive in the present, and Ahmadinejad seems poised to run for office again. You’re justifiably asking: He was already president so how is that even a thing to begin with? In Iran, term limits are a little different. After serving two consecutive terms, a former president can run again after sitting out one round, making 2017 the earliest election Ahmadinejad would be able to participate in after his two terms run. There are a lot of familiar faces shuffling positions in the Iranian government, so it’s not that weird to see former presidents still in the deep end of politics. But just because he can doesn’t mean doing so makes any sense; after all, this is a guy who was supported by the establishment because they thought he would be an easy figurehead to push around, but wound up alienating everyone — seriously, he has no highly placed allies — by being awful in every way possible.
But if we know anything about Ahmadinejad, it’s that he’s a wildcard. Since leaving office he’s been meeting with supporters, and recently made a significant public speech — his first major one since 2013. People close to him, including his brother, have said there is a very real chance he’ll be throwing his hat in the ring next year.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Even if he makes it past the vetting process, he’ll be a back-in-time candidate. Think of him as an Iranian Trump, trying to run on a platform of ‘Making Iran Great Again’ when everyone already thinks things are on the right track.[/quote]
As you’ve learned by now, though, Iranian elections are complicated. Preparations for the election, likely to be held in the late spring, will start this fall. Part of those preparations include a vetting by the Guardian Council, which is a group of 12 Islamic and legal experts who function as a kind of legislative branch with the ability to veto proposed laws. Although hundreds apply every single election cycle, the shortlist is most often less than ten candidates. There are criteria, including age and qualifications, but the Guardian Council has proven it’s pretty easy to eliminate candidates they don’t want running. After all, women aren’t barred from running but have never made it past the vetting stage. That’s definitely not a coincidence. And Ahmadinejad will have to get past that group if he wants in the race.
But no matter how you slice it, the 2017 election is going to be major. President Rouhani just won a significant mandate in parliamentary elections, with Reformist and moderate candidates pushing out a lot of the more conservative voices. The Nuclear Deal has made it possible for the Iranian economy to bounce back after crippling inflation due to sanctions, and if Rouhani shifts focus to domestic issues he could start making good on some of those sweet, sweet campaign promises, like greater economic opportunity for women. He and his allies are popular right now, and the rest of the world is responding positively to Iran for the first time in years.
And it’s within that context that an Ahmadinejad candidacy would have to compete. Even if he makes it past the vetting process (which is unlikely), he’ll be a back-in-time candidate that could appeal to his base of rural, devout and traditionalist voters, but will likely have a hard time finding the same reactionary vein he tapped when running in 2005. Think of him as an Iranian Trump, trying to run on a platform of ‘Making Iran Great Again’ when everyone already thinks things are on the right track.
But what these rumors and whispers prove is that 2017 is already shaping up to be a roller coaster in Iran. If Ahmadinejad does make his comeback, things could get really weird really fast. Get your popcorn ready!