The resurfacing of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The resurfacing of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
5 min read
22 Mar, 2018
Comment: Government wavering about how to move forward following the recent protests has left an opening for someone like Ahmadinejad to exploit, writes Kevin Schwartz.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president of Iran from 2005 to 2013 [Getty]

In the aftermath of the largest protests in Iran in nearly a decade, a curious voice has emerged centre-stage to take aim at the political establishment and advocate reform: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The former hardline and populist president from 2005-2013 has in recent weeks written a letter to Iran's Supreme Leader asking for "immediate and free elections" and questioned deaths in prisons labelled by the government as 'suicides'. Such positions put him squarely on the side of those reformist-minded critics long challenging the government's policy of interfering in elections and tactics of imprisonment.

Even before the protests erupted in the final days of 2017, Ahmadinejad was already a thorn in the regime's side, dating back to his final term in office.

More recently he has challenged the government by continuously attacking the judiciary and its head, demanded transparency in court cases brought against his aides, and sought to run in the 2017 presidential elections over the advice of the Supreme leader, though he was later disqualified from running.

Rumours have also circulated that it was Ahmadinejad who helped instigate the initial protests, before they snowballed out of control. For an individual who previously benefited so demonstrably from regime support in the contested 2009 elections and questioned the circumstances of the well-documented death of Neda Agha-Soltan during the protests that followed, these newfound positions are more than a little ironic.

The government today cannot maintain such strict control over the narrative of events

Ahmadinejad's curious about-face on one level represents the tactics of an aspiring politician wishing to lay the groundwork for a comeback.

But the former president's recent political activity, however incredulous for questioning long-standing norms in the Islamic Republic, also represents an attempt at filling the void left by a government that collectively remains on the defensive, uncertain of how to respond to the protests and offer solutions moving forward.

The odd confrontation between Ahmadinejad and the regime represents one element of a larger, politically fraught environment marked by public anger directed against the regime and the  government's inability to control the narrative of events.

Nearly a decade ago, when the Iranian government stamped out the 2009 post-election protests, part of their success was controlling the narrative of events. When the protesters refused to recognise a verified election result, the government had little trouble in claiming their disobedience to the Islamic Republic and quickly moved to marginalise, repress, and arrest them and their leaders.

Read more: If Zarif is serious about security, Iran's support for Assad must end

These seditionists - as the government called them - were operating outside the body politic and wanted to put an end to the Islamic Republic by taking actions in clear defiance of a political edict.

The government today cannot reliably make such a neat, collective claim about the protesters' dissatisfaction or maintain strict control over the narrative of events. The protests were not instigated by a single political event like an election result, but general fatigue of economic life.

Controlling citizens' perceptions over the state of the economy is invariably more difficult

The data points under discussion are not the disputed votes in a limited number of ballot boxes, but the price of eggs, the value of Iran's currency and limitless perceptions of government responsibility. The government may be able to control the counting of votes but controlling citizens' perceptions over the state of the economy and one's own job prospects is invariably more difficult.

This time there is no easy claim that the protesters fall outside the body politic and wish to subvert the Islamic Republic, for it is in their name and the pursuit of social justice more generally that the Revolution is often claimed to have been made in the first place.

The Iranian government has struggled to offer a unified response, an unsurprising development due to the intense factionalism shaping government politics. But even attempts by different factions have remained incoherent and contradictory.

Conservatives have recognised the protesters' economic grievances and the Supreme Leader has gone so far as to indicate that military organisations should divest from "irrelevant economic activities," an ongoing source of frustration for many who see an organisation like the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as unfairly benefiting from government largesse and preferential economic treatment.

We can now add a former president to the list of those questioning business as usual in the Islamic Republic

But it is unclear how such a policy directive would actually unfold in practice, if at all. Moreover, such recommendations remain continually undercut by brushing off the protests as part of a larger foreign plot and the Supreme Leader's claims that workers - whose economic plight played no small role in the events - have long been a bastion of counter revolutionary sentiment.

President Rouhani has fared no better.

He may have recognised the larger political grievances structuring the protesters' economic angst, but when faced with the opportunity to show solidarity with those rallying against the compulsory headscarf, his response has been more lukewarm than supportive. 

This is much in line with Rouhani's pragmatist pedigree, especially around sensitive topics in times of turmoil: Display an awareness of a cultural issue vexing many Iranians, but don't offer enough support as to alienate the more conservative voices of the government by wasting limited political capital, to confront them on issues of presumed greater import, such as the economy.

All this wavering about how to move forward following the protests has left an opening for someone like Ahmadinejad to exploit. His dogged entry into the tenuous post-protest political climate adds to the cavalcade of voices challenging long-standing norms and practice of the Islamic Republic, alongside those the economically disenfranchisedSufi protesters"Girls of Revolution Street," and oppositional clerics.

His significantly diminished political base, disastrous previous presidency, and personal ambition aside, one can now add a former president to the list of those questioning business as usual in the Islamic Republic, whatever his ulterior motive may be. 

Kevin L. Schwartz is a Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.