In 2015, when there was no expectation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comeback, or talk of his potential registration for Iran’s 2017 presidential elections, I wrote that he “can present a viable challenge to the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani” in this year’s vote.
I meant that Ahmadinejad could use his political weight and populism, and could capitalize on people’s economic grievances and hard-liners’ criticism of Rouhani, to campaign and rally the hard-liners’ social base behind another hard-line candidate, not for his own presidency. Running for himself is very unlikely due to reluctance among Iran’s top echelons of powers.
Iran’s presidential elections are unpredictable and complex. An example of the complexity is that many candidates register not to run personally but to rally support and mobilize their social base for another candidate. This is likely why Ahmadinejad is registering.
His insatiable hunger for power, media attention and status has caused tensions with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad’s registration gives him the international spotlight he yearns for, and a possibility to be part of the next presidential team if the candidate he supports wins.
By examining his domestic activities in the last few years, it seems he was preparing to enter politics again. He was traveling to cities, criticizing Rouhani and launching a domestic political campaign ahead of the latest parliamentary elections.
Former presidents harshly attacking the sitting one is rare in Iran. Ahmadinejad began capitalizing on the fact that Rouhani’s economic plans and promises were not delivering relief to the overwhelming majority of Iranians.
Although the nuclear deal lifted four rounds of economic sanctions against Iran, the major beneficiaries of oil exports and additional billions of dollars are Khamenei, his circle of power and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Rouhani’s stance toward the US was also viewed as weak by hard-liners. As such, the environment is ripe for Ahmadinejad to challenge him electorally.
Although Ahmadinejad’s presidency ended in 2013 with the lowest popular vote compared to his predecessors, the socioeconomic situation has since changed. Many Iranians may not like him personally, but his policies of providing monthly cash handouts and subsidies are popular among the poor, particularly after Rouhani cut many social welfares.
So Ahmadinejad can campaign for his favorite candidate because he is popular in rural areas, and among the poor and lower middle class. But he may split hard-line votes, which could increase Rouhani’s odds of victory.