The Reincarnation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
The former president was excommunicated from Iran’s political elite—but he’s using grassroots economic populism to revive his career.
Iran has descended into a state of chaos since President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election in 2017. Two major series of protests have broken out across the country over the past year, triggered by anger over the economy—anger associated in Iranians’ minds with the uncertain status of the 2015 nuclear deal and the return of sanctions after Rouhani’s failed diplomacy with the United States.
The effect of the protests has thus far been minimal—with one exception. They have resulted in the political reincarnation of Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his unpredictable style of politics, marked by a combination of domestic populism and international aggression.
When Ahmadinejad left office in 2013, having hit the country’s two-term limit, he was isolated and widely loathed, including by the Iranian political elite, which had effectively excommunicated him due to his increasingly open challenges to Iran’s clerical hierarchy—including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whom he was said to have criticized in private meetings. Ahmadinejad’s attempt to tap his chief of staff and closest advisor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as his successor (and Dmitry Medvedev-style president-by-proxy) were extinguished by the Guardian Council, the institution tasked with vetting candidates.
Rouhani, considered a moderate in the Iranian political spectrum and a member of the Iranian establishment by any definition, ultimately won the election and went on to fulfill his campaign promise of arriving at a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute with the West that had deepened during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office. When Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for Washington lifting its most severe sanctions, Iran’s economy started to improve, with one Western business delegation after another arriving in Tehran. That Ahmadinejad’s rivals in the Rouhani administration succeeded by reversing their predecessor’s policies—above all, breaking the taboo of high-level direct negotiations with the United States—only worsened the former president’s reputation.
Then, in 2016, the United States elected Donald Trump as president. The inauguration of the person whom Iranians have called “America’s Ahmadinejad” coincided with the decline of Rouhani’s good fortune. Trump’s suddenly credible vow to destroy former President Barack Obama’s greatest diplomatic legacy and reintroduce sanctions immediately disrupted the Iranian economy and scared off investments by major Western companies.
In 2017, Ahmadinejad tried to seize the opportunity offered by Rouhani’s weakness by declaring his candidacy for that year’s presidential election, openly defying Ayatollah Khamenei, who warned him against running. This only deepened Ahmadinejad dispute with hard-liners and conservatives, who attacked him for disobeying the supreme leader’s “advice.” The Guardian Council, in any case, didn’t permit him to run.
The setback, however, didn’t stop Ahmadinejad in his attempted comeback bid. Instead, he changed tactics. Over the past year, he has traveled across the country, holding events focused on restoring his reputation as the leader and savior of the many millions of people struggling to get by in Iran’s turbulent economy. And in presenting himself as Iran’s new opposition leader, he is explicitly contrasting himself with the entire existing establishment.
In his various speeches, Ahmadinejad has attacked rivals across the political spectrum—reformists, conservatives, and moderates—accusing them of corruption, nepotism, and ruining the national economy. Ahmadinejad has also launched an onslaught on Iran’s judiciary, which is in the hands of religious conservatives and has long been unpopular with the public. He always argues that the Islamic Revolution should be returned to its real owners—Iran’s ordinary people.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad has tried to demonstrate that he isn’t intimidated by Trump—even reaching out to him with requests to discredit his rivals (in ways reminiscent of Trump’s own public requests of Russia to assist in his campaign against Hillary Clinton). On Aug. 1, Ahmadinejad tweeted: “Mr @realDonaldTrump release the list of relatives of #Iranian Government officials that have #GreenCards and #BankAccounts in the #UnitedStates if you have such a list.”
Ahmadinejad was originally circumspect in responding to the nationwide protests that broke out in December 2017. His closet advisor, Mashaei, however, wrote an article on Jan. 18 that compared the demonstrations to pre-Islamic Revolution protests. Ali Akbar Javanfekr, another close advisor to Ahmadinejad, also declared on Jan. 3 that “the events of these days and nights are rooted in years of obvious insults to people’s understanding and intensification of [this issue] in recent months and weeks.”
This year, Ahmadinejad has become more vocal in addressing the protests. As the value of Iran’s currency dropped after Trump officially withdraw from the nuclear deal in May, causing Iranians to take to the streets in various cities, Ahmadinejad blamed Rouhani and the supreme leader for reaching an “unacceptable” deal with the West, saying they didn’t listen to his advice about how best to achieve an agreement with the United States.
In a speech on May 31, Ahmadinejad took a veiled swipe at Ayatollah Khamenei over the economy. “We don’t want to [point fingers at] anyone as guilty [for the failure of the nuclear deal and the return of sanctions], because all of the officials in the country approved [the deal].” He also said that he had opposed the initiation of talks with the United States during Rouhani’s first term, as he thought “the enemies had the upper hand and this will be to the country’s detriment.” Ahmadinejad added that he had now asked the government to empower him for six months to set economic policy to combat U.S. sanctions. “I told them that I’m willing to give my family [to you] as hostage, and if my plans weren’t successful, [you are free to] execute me and my family.”
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad has increasingly drawn from the classic populist playbook by promising immediate solutions to Iranians’ economic hardships. On July 28, during a trip to the northeastern city of Bojnord, he interrupted his criticisms of Rouhani’s economic mismanagement to announce a new plan to immediately triple Iran’s universal basic income, which is currently 450,000 rial per month.
On June 29, after shop owners at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar—considered the heart of Iran’s economy—went on strike to protest the rial’s unprecedented devaluation against the dollar and the economy’s general instability, Ahmadinejad gave a speech in which he presented himself as an economic messiah. “[You say] the gold market can’t become stable? Yes it can. I have announced that there is a solution,” he said, without providing any details. “[We] can change the situation with three or four simple decisions. But if we wait too long, it becomes more difficult.” He then requested that the existing government step aside: “Mr. Economy Minister, Mr. President, Mr. Parliament Speaker—open the way for people so that the protesters can express themselves and explain your errors.” On Aug. 9, amid scattered nationwide protests, Ahmadinejad released a video in which he asks Rouhani to resign. “The best way to satisfy the people is not to continue [your presidential term].”
It’s not clear whether Ahmadinejad’s new pose of economic mastery will convince a critical mass of Iranians. His unbridled rhetoric and lofty promises have revived his popularity to some extent, judging from the crowds he has attracted. But many Iranians still remember that the economy was struggling under sanctions during his time in office, too—and that his economic failures led to Rouhani’s election in the first place. “He is neither a political scientist nor a philosopher, and doesn’t have the capacity to lead the poor class,” reformist cleric Mohsen Gahravian told Foreign Policy. “People know him well and can’t forget how he ruined the country’s economy.”
The political establishment has mostly refrained from responding to Ahmadinejad’s provocations. The only exception was a recent statement from the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, who issued a warning to Ahmadinejad on Aug. 8 without ever mentioning his name. “We are witnessing that some figures go to [different] cities and bring up issues, and there is no person probing [him] for these [accusations],” he declared. “We won’t allow this to continue, and we will definitely confront such behaviors.”
What’s already clear is that Trump’s ratcheting up of economic measures is pressuring Iran’s existing political establishment and laying the groundwork for an anti-establishment populist government to take its place. Ahmadinejad is clearly eager to play the latter role. Whether the Iranian people are eager to give him that chance remains to be seen.