Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be considering a return to politics, recently delivering a campaign-style speech where he roused supporters and warned that — despite an historic nuclear deal — America remains an enemy of the Islamic Republic.
The hard-line conservative fixture, known for his fervently anti-Israel statements and penchant for conspiracy theories, has been out of office since his more moderate successor, Hassan Rouhani, took the helm in 2013. Since then, Ahmadinejad has mostly kept out of the public eye. But a series of trips, statements from confidants, and social media activity in recent months have fueled speculation that he may try to make a comeback ahead of parliamentary elections next February.
Most recently, the Associated Press reported on a public speech Ahmadinejad gave last Thursday, his first in two years. He called on his supporters to "begin working energetically in the provinces."
"God willing, victory and a very bright future awaits us," he said. "However, there will be bumps and satanic obstacles in our path."
"One should not forget that the US is our enemy," he added.
Beginning last year, Ahmadinejad made series of trips throughout the country, including to a commemoration for martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war. This February, he unveiled an Instagram account, as well as a new website, ahmadinejad.ir, which features the ominous slogan "We will come soon." The site includes a manifesto denouncing Western policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he called "imperialist."
News media have speculated that Ahmadinejad may be planning to lead a faction in Iran's parliament, or seeking to pave the way for another presidential run in 2017. Some analysts have even suggested that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be using the hard-line Ahmadinejad to balance the growing influence of moderates like Rouhani, whose profile has risen in the wake of the nuclear deal with the United States and five other world powers.
But Alex Vatanka, an Iranian-born senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told VICE News that Ahmadinejad has virtually no chance of regaining his earlier prominence. He said that the ex-leader's recent statements are merely signs of his unrealistic ambition and inflated ego. Ahmadinejad, he pointed out, has left a lot of "bad blood" in Iran, not only with reformers like Rouhani, but also with powerful clerics and other senior regime figures.
"This guy has too much baggage, too many enemies, including the Supreme Leader in a way," he said.
Though Ahmadinejad retains some support amongst rural and poor voters who benefited from some of his populist policies, Vatanka explained that the Supreme Leader's favor is much more important.
"It's not about the poor masses, it's about who in Iran lets you rise in politics," he said, "and that's the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei."
All nominees to high political office in Iran must be vetted by the Guardian Council, half of whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader. Without Khamenei's approval, it's inconceivable that Ahmadinejad could run for the presidency, parliament, or any other important position.
If the Supreme Leader were looking for a counterforce against Rouhani, he could look to a whole range of other, less compromised hard-liners, says Vatanka. He called Ahmadinejad a "spent political force" who the regime leadership views as too unpredictable to trust with any considerable amount of power.
Even if Ahmadinejad were to secure a seat in parliament, Vatanka says, his influence would be extremely minimal in the Islamic Republic, a theocracy where most power is vested in the religious establishment. Worse, Ahmadinejad's reputation would make it hard to attract allies in parliament, who would likely fear courting the wrath of the Ayatollah.
"What does it mean to be in the Iranian parliament?" he said. "It means nothing. They can scream all they like, but they don't control the fundamentals of the regime's legislation."
Despite his reputation as a conservative, Vatanka says Ahmadinejad is more of a nationalist than a theocrat, and has occasionally questioned the authority of clerics and defied their orders. His reputation has also been undermined by economic turmoil and numerous corruption scandals during his two terms as president, with one of his vice presidents recently jailed for money laundering and embezzlement, and another deputy now facing similar charges.
"If I was Ahmadinejad I would think it advisable to keep a low profile," he said. "He needs to worry about whether he ends up in jail."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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