Wild Card

Outgoing Iranian president could play destabilizing role in Iranian election

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad / AP
• May 31, 2013 9:00 am


Outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could emerge as an unlikely wild card in the country’s upcoming elections following a full-blown falling out with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, according to regional experts.

Ahmadinejad, a once loyal Khamenei ally, has butted heads with the supreme leader as his presidential term comes to an end this June.

The rocky relationship hit an all-time low last week after a Khamenei-controlled election council banned Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and close friend from participating in the June 14 elections.

The tension has led some observers to speculate that a marginalized Ahmadinejad might make good on a threat to release confidential informational about widespread corruption in Iran’s ruling class.

"Ahmadinejad has undoubtedly had access to a great deal of derogatory information about other officials since becoming president in 2005," said Barbara Slavin, a journalist and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "How he chooses to use that information is another matter."

Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, could seek to destabilize the elections and drum-up controversy as election day approaches in Tehran.

"This guy is a huge uncertainty for the entire system and a lot of what we’re seeing now is designed to keep him from going off the reservation," Suzanne Maloney
a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said Thursday during an Atlantic Council forum on the upcoming elections. "He knows where the bodies are buried."

"This is a guy with real ambitions" who cannot be easily bought off with a plum post-presidential appointment, Maloney said.

Ahmadinejad has already proven that he is willing to stir up trouble.

"There was a taste of this earlier this year when Ahmadinejad was summoned to parliament and played a tape of one of the [Larijani family members] apparently soliciting a bribe," Slavin said, noting that Ahmadinejad and his allies have remained mum thus far about what they will do with the information in their possession.

The Larijani family is a prominent player in Tehran. Ali Larijani is currently the country’s speaker of parliament and is believed to be a key voice on the country’s nuclear policies.

"Given that two former senior officials of the Islamic Republic have been under house arrest for more than two years and that several of Ahmadinejad's associates have also been arrested at various times, Ahmadinejad may choose to keep his mouth shut in return for some continuing role in the affairs of the Islamic Republic," Slavin explained.

"If he doesn't, of course, it could make for a more interesting campaign than otherwise seems likely," she added.

Ahmadinejad has become an infamous Iranian figure since assuming the presidency in 2005. At times his fiery rhetoric and other antics have eclipsed even those of Khamenei.

However, Ahmadinejad’s power has waned in recent months as Khamenei flexes his political muscle in ways often embarrassing to the president.

Ahmadinejad attempted to fire Iran’s intelligence minister last month. However, Khamenei soon reversed the decision.

"So far the government is effective in controlling him," said Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian-American scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace. However, "silence is not one of the virtues Ahmadinejad has."

The Khamenei-controlled Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has also arrested at least "two dozen people close to the president and Mashaei," according to media reports referenced by Slavin in a recent Foreign Policy article.

Another Ahmadinejad confidant, Hamid Baghaei, was suspended earlier this week from holding a political office for at least four years as a result of unnamed "violations," Slavid noted.

"The government planned to control Ahmadinejad a long time ago because they knew they’d have a problem with him and what a troublemaker he is," Khalaji said.

The remaining candidates that Khamenei approved to run in the election are widely viewed as extremist hardliners who will toe Tehran’s official line.

Ahmadinejad, who has been accused of corruption, has threatened to spill the beans about Iranian elites in the past.

He revealed in April that certain Iranian officials had warned him against going public, according to reports.

"People elected me in order to defend their rights, to divide national wealth among them, to bring justice and fight against financial corruption," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by state-run media outlets.

Ahmadinejad reportedly went on to say to his critics, "you are nobody and cannot decide on behalf of the people" whether this information will be released.

Tensions between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have run high since at least October of last year, when the president went public about his fight with Larijani.

Former Pentagon adviser Michael Rubin said Ahmadinejad should be taken at his word.

"That said, Ahmadinejad—while as corrupt as they come—has always projected an austere image on Iranian TV," said Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who advised the Pentagon on Iran and Iraq. "Even if he's full of bluster, people will believe him because they juxtapose the image of him sitting cross-legged on the floor of a room without furniture with that of the Supreme Leader sitting on his golden throne."