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Ahmadinejad throws down the gauntlet to the Iranian establishment

August 16, 2018 at 11:01 am

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) delivers a speech during a press conference in Tehran, Iran on April 12, 2017 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

As Iran sinks deeper into economic crisis, the establishment is scrambling to contain the situation. To illustrate the point, establishment grandees, like Ahmad Jannati, who is chairman of both the Assembly of Experts and the Council of Guardians, are calling for speedy trials and tough sentences to punish economic “criminals”.

This follows on the heels of the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s approval of the creation of “special courts” to tackle corruption and financial crimes. It is a sign of the gravity of the crisis – and its potential intensification once full US sanctions are re-imposed in early November – that Iranian leaders and officials are calling for the execution of economic criminals on the grounds of “spreading corruption on earth”.

These measures may deter the most egregious offenders, and more broadly they may create the psychological conditions to withstand the US sanctions and their far-reaching economic and political impact. But they are not going to resolve the deep-rooted causes of corruption and inefficiency in the Iranian economy.

By contrast, former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is demanding a root and branch approach by calling on the current President, Hassan Rouhani, to step down. Whilst Ahmadinejad’s critics and enemies have predictably accused him of political opportunism, the basic fact is that the former president represents a significant constituency in the Islamic Republic which is clamouring for radical solutions to the country’s intensifying economic and political problems.

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Radical populist

Since leaving power in 2013 Ahmadinejad has tried to re-engage in politics, if only to answer the accusations by his critics and enemies, the most vocal of which are aligned to the current Rouhani administration. However, since the protests of late December and early January, Ahmadinejad has stepped up his attacks on sections of the establishment.

The authorities’ response to Ahmadinejad’s attempt at a comeback has been to use the judiciary to intimidate and silence the former president’s supporters. Several of the former president’s closest aides are currently languishing in jail, either convicted or awaiting trial. These include former vice president Hamid Baghai, who has been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on corruption charges, and another vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who was arrested in late March.

Mashaei’s arrest and continuing detention has sparked fears that the authorities are intent on smashing the Ahmadinejad faction altogether, possibly by even going to the extraordinary length of arresting the former president himself. A former intelligence official, Rahim Mashaei, is widely considered to be the chief ideologue of the Ahmadinejad movement.

But the arrest of the leadership is only the tip of the iceberg. Since the beginning of the year scores of activists and influential supporters connected to Ahmadinejad have either been arrested or subjected to a degree of security and judicial pressure. The aim of this crackdown is to prevent the former president from consolidating his political base and by extension from reaching out to the wider public.

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The establishment is fearful of the Ahmadinejad phenomenon as it represents a clear third force in Iranian politics. The Ahmadinejad movement is a radical departure from the political and economic doctrines of the conservative factions (from which it originally emerged) and is of course anathema to the reformists.

Political shift

Whilst Ahmadinejad had previously concentrated much of his ire on the judiciary – in part because of the latter’s relentless pressure on his aids and supporters – he has now raised the stakes by focussing clearly on Hassan Rouhani.

In some ways this is a delayed reaction to all the accusations and attacks by Rouhani supporters over the past five years. As a skilful politician, Ahmadinejad has chosen his timing carefully, when Rouhani appears to be at his weakest point due to the collapsing nuclear dear and the deteriorating economic situation.

Whilst some Iranian analysts play down Ahmadinejad’s impact on the political scene by imputing parochial motives onto him, the fact remains that under more favourable political conditions, not least the withdrawal of security and judicial pressure, the former president is more than a credible match for heavyweight politicians on the left and right.

In regards to Ahmadinejad’s call for Rouhani to resign, this is unlikely to immediately unsettle the incumbent, not least because in recent weeks the conservative establishment has rallied round the embattled Iranian president.

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By adopting a more hardline stance on foreign and domestic policies, Rouhani has shifted to the right and by extension distanced himself from his reformist-centrist base. Political manoeuvring notwithstanding, Rouhani cannot disguise the appalling economic mismanagement of his administration.

Whilst sanctions – or more accurately the threat of them – have created the right mood music for the current economic crisis, notably turbulence on the currency and gold markets, it is above all economic mismanagement that has allowed the situation to spiral out of control.

Rouhani’s government, and his economic team in particular, appear to be completely out of touch with ordinary people, as demonstrated by the scandal surrounding their astronomical salaries and more broadly the widespread cronyism and associated cynical attitude which defines the current administration.

Ahmadinejad is well placed to tap into the resentment generated by Rouhani’s policies not least because of his enduring appeal to the working classes who have been the most badly affected by the current government’s neo-liberal economic ethos. Moreover, he is also well placed to appeal to sections of the middle class whose living standard is falling fast in the midst of the economic crisis. Whilst the middle classes have traditionally been opposed to Ahmadinejad, nevertheless Rouhani’s disappointing record may prompt a radical shift in attitudes.

Ahmadinejad’s opposition to the current administration is not so much a “reincarnation” as some analysts describe, but in fact a continuation of his populist approach to politics. Whilst most analysts and political insiders are dismissive of his prospects, nonetheless the events and crises of the coming months and years may once again propel Ahmadinejad to the centre stage of Iranian politics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.