Ex-Iranian leader Ahmadinejad makes surprise entry into presidential race

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line former two-term leader of Iran who’s barred from seeking office again, surprised election officials Wednesday by registering to run in next month’s presidential race.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes a victory sign after registering his candidacy for next month's presidential election in Tehran, Iran, on Wednesday. Photo by Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes a victory sign after registering his candidacy for next month’s presidential election in Tehran, Iran, on Wednesday. Photo by Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

Ahmadinejad submitted the required paperwork to become a candidate for May’s vote and ultimately succeed moderate President Hasan Rouhani.

The former leader’s registration surprised election officials at the Interior Ministry because Ahmadinejad, who left office in 2013 after a major falling out with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been prohibited from seeking the presidency again by the Iranian supreme leader.
Ahmadinejad, 60, has also previously promised not to run again, largely due to the supreme leader’s advice last year that it’s not in the best interest of the country and would “polarize” the electoral atmosphere. The abrupt change of heart seems to indicate that Ahmadinejad either suddenly has Ali Khamenei’s backing, or no longer seek’s the supreme leader’s approval.

All candidates who register for the election — nearly 300 people so far, including several women — must be vetted and approved by the Guardian Council. A protege of Ahmadinejad’s, Hamid Baqaei, also entered the race.

At the Interior Ministry in Tehran on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad said Khamenei’s “advice” does not ban him from registering.

“I am committed to my moral promise and my presence and registration is only to support Mr. Baqaei,” he said.

Just last week, Ahmadinejad said he had no plans to “present” himself on the ballot.

Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader since 1989, did not immediately comment on Ahmadinejad’s registration Wednesday. Rouhani has not yet formally registered, but is widely expected to seek a second term.

Iranian presidents are term-limited, but are legally able to re-seek the office on a staggered rotation. Iran’s constitution only prohibits presidents from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms at a time.

The former president’s chances at recapturing the office, though, seem highly unlikely — at least from a qualifying standpoint.

The Guardian Council is comprised of 12 members — all of whom, more or less, are placed on the panel by Khamenei. The council has six Islamic experts, hand-picked by the supreme leader, and six legal experts elected by the parliamentary Majilis. The lawmakers, however, can only choose the latter half from nominees approved by the head of the Judicial Council, who is also directly appointed by Khamenei.

“Most likely, he will not be [approved],” Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leylaz said after Ahmadinejad’s registration.

“He won’t be qualified by the Guardian Council for sure, given his background,” political analyst Hassan Lasjerdi said, adding that running in opposition to Khamenei is a constitutional violation of law.

Ahmadinejad’s chances would improve substantially if he somehow managed to get on the ballot. Many Iranians have remarked in recent weeks that he would be an effective counterbalance to U.S. President Donald Trump. Also, Iran continues to struggle economically under Rouhani’s leadership, even after he worked with Western powers to lift punitive sanctions through the landmark nuclear deal in 2015.

Conservatives reacted to Wednesday’s registration by Ahmadinejad negatively, viewing the move as a blasphemous defiance of Khamenei.

“With today’s move — registering for the presidential elections, my belief in you was broken,” former lawmaker and Ahmadinejad loyalist Mehdi Kouchakzadeh wrote on social media.

“The end of Ahmadinejad!” state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reporter and former lawmaker Elias Naderan added.
July 2013: Khamenei says goodbye to Ahmadinejad
Last month, Ahmadinejad said “mistakes” from 2013 must not be allowed to happen again — a reference to the disapproval of a protege of his, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, in that election. Until Wednesday, however, the former leader hadn’t given any indication that he had an interest in running.

Elected as Iran’s sixth president in August 2005, Ahmadinejad led the Islamic republic with fiery rhetoric and regular contempt for the United States under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He also frequently rattled the saber with regard to Israel — refusing to recognize it as a nation, and once in a 2005 speech said the Jewish state “must be wiped off the map.” He also once publicly called the Holocaust a “myth.”

Ahmadinejad was often a popular figure, but peripheral issues with his administration — which included embezzlement scandals, accusations of corruption and frequent clashes with the Islamic Consultative Assembly — ultimately pushed him out of favor with the Supreme Leadership Authority, to the point he was barred by Khamenei from seeking another term when he left office in 2013.

By Doug G. Ware