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Does hard-liner Ahmadinejad want his job back?

Thomas Latschan / jsJuly 6, 2016

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has resurfaced, and his criticism of the current Iranian president has grown harsher with every speech. There's even word that Ahmadinejad might try to get his old job back in the 2017 election.

Türkei Bursa Mahmud Ahmadinedschad
Image: picture-alliance/AA/A. Atmaca

The world let out a collective sigh of relief when the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani replaced a termed-out Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president in 2013. As president, Ahmadinejad had done much to deepen the rift between Iran and the international community. Negotiations for a nuclear deal had come to a dead end; the country was isolated and in an economic abyss. To make matters worse, Ahmadinejad consistently made headlines with vitriolic statements aimed at the United States and Israel. He was also controversial domestically. His 2009 re-election was accompanied by mass protests and accusations of fraud. Rouhani's 2013 landslide victory was thought to have signaled the end of such contentiousness.

Ahmadinejad himself said he was retiring from politics for good and that he wanted to return to teaching at university. In his last days in office, the plan seemed to be in place: the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution announced that it had granted him permission to found his own university in Tehran. Yet the plan fell through because of - among other things - a lack of finances. Ultimately, the former president was also unable to completely turn his back on politics. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei created a position for him on the Expediency Council, an assembly created to resolve differences between the Iranian parliament, or Majlis, and the powerful Guardian Council.

After a while, the former president became conspicuously silent, not saying a word publicly for years. A few weeks ago, Ahmadinejad reappeared, touring the countryside and giving ever more public lectures. To the cheers of his supporters, he has railed against the nuclear deal that Iran signed with China, Russia, the United States, the UK, France and Germany. "He has harshly criticized the Rouhani administration at such appearances," the Berlin-based Iranian-born publisher Bahman Nirumand said. "He says that the Islamic Republic is on the wrong path, that the principles of the Iranian Revolution are being betrayed, and that Rouhani is leading the country astray."

Iran Teheran Rede Mahmud Ahmadinedschad
After his re-election was disputed, Ahmadinejad called for the opposition to be punishedImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Mehri

'Big comeback campaign'

Iran will elect a new president in the spring of 2017. Observers believe that Ahmadinejad is positioning himself to run for the office again. His former government spokesman has supposedly filed papers with the election board to that end. Further, the Iranian daily newspaper Shargh recently reported on "plans for a big comeback campaign." In the wake of their parliamentary election losses this spring, hard-liners in Iran are looking for a strong candidate for the next ballot. Many believe that the former president is just the man.

Many Iranians had had high hopes that the lifting of sanctions after the nuclear deal would improve their economic situation. "But that hasn't happened," said Nirumand, who publishes a monthly report on Iran for the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank affiliated with Germany's Greens. "None of the preliminary agreements that Iran reached with Western investors ever went anywhere, because banks were simply not prepared to finance the deals." There are still a number of sanctions in place. Just last week, the US State Department released an annual report in which Iran was listed as the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism. "Such stories are getting a lot of coverage in Iran, especially in the conservative press," Nirumand said. "And revolutionary leader Khamenei has continued to warn about putting too much trust in the USA: 'Even if we do everything that the Americans want, they will always want something else.' And now those on the right see that claim being confirmed." Ahmadinejad apparently thinks that he might be able to profit from the growing disillusionment.

There is very little to suggest that Iran would be better off under a new Ahmadinejad presidency. Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 on the promise of creating millions of jobs for Iranians and lowering the inflation rate of the rial. He achieved neither - quite the opposite in fact. Thanks in part to international sanctions but also to gross mismanagement on the part of the government, by the time he stepped down in 2013 Iran found itself in a deep recession. During Ahmadinejad's tenure, inflation climbed to 30 percent and unemployed was stuck at 12 percent. Those are the official numbers; the picture was no doubt much bleaker. "His record as president was dismal," Nirumand said. "He destroyed the economy, although oil revenues during his first four years in office were unusually high." It has been estimated that $200 billion of those revenues disappeared.

Not so fast

Many Iranians have mixed emotions about a comeback by Ahmadinejad. "True, he has a lot of supporters out in the provinces," Nirumand said. "But, on the other hand, a lot of conservatives have spoken out against him in parliament and in public."

Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, for example, was Ahmadinejad's chief nuclear negotiator and is now a self-proclaimed opponent of the former president. "For Iranians, the idea that someone who had two relatively unsuccessful terms in office would run for president again in 2017, is not very appealing," Larijani has said.

Nirumand followed on that: "Revolutionary leader Khamenei steadfastly supported Ahmadinejad during his first four years, but after that there were a number of major differences between the two. Therefore, I cannot imagine Ahmadinejad being re-elected as president. If he were, it would mean a complete change of course, both domestically and internationally - and that would be catastrophic for the whole country."