Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying he wants to "redefine revolutionary ideals" set up by the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appears to be launching a campaign to run in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, in February, 2017.
Ahmadinejad was well-known for his incendiary and provocative speeches, which included denying the Holocaust. At the end of his presidential term, from 2005 to 2013, his approval rating was extremely low, and he managed to drive away most constituents across political spectrum, including the topmost hardline leaders. He also became the first Iranian president since 1979 to be summoned by the parliament (Majlis) to answer questions regarding his activities and policies.
After all of this, the common conception among politicians, scholars and policy analysts was that Ahmadinejad would never return to politics. It seemed that his retirement plan focused on founding a university and teaching, but his plan to open a university failed.
Despite his low popularity among people, however, the "principalists" (ultra-conservatives) were still on his side, due to his fierce anti-US, anti-Western and anti-Israel policies and rhetoric, as well as the fact that he remains a major figure in the coalition of several conservative groups, the Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran.
After Ahmadinejad's presidency, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed him to the Expediency Council, Iran's highest political arbitration body, which arbitrates between the Guardian Council (the supervisory body over the parliament and elections) and the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament). The Expediency Council is predominantly made up of Iran's hardline clerics, and functions as an advisory institution to the Supreme Leader.
Although it seems that Ahmadinejad did not have any intention of returning after being out of the international spotlight for two years, other factors show that he never really left. Domestically, Ahmadinejad remained politically active, trying to unify and lead the hardliners. Since he left office, he has continued holding meetings with former ministers in Tehran.
In the last few months, however, Ahmadinejad's desire to launch his campaign more forcefully and determinedly has become clearer as, once again, he began attracting the international spotlight, such as when he wrote an open letter to US President Barack Obama, demanding the transfer of $2 billion to Iran.
To capitalize on the popular vote and the presidential elections of 2017, Ahmadinejad has been focusing on attracting constituents from around Iran by traveling to smaller cities and towns, giving lectures and speeches; supporters of Ahmadinejad have called for his return.
During his presidency, people enjoyed subsidies on items including petrol, natural gas and electricity, and his government distributed monthly cash handouts of about $17 to every person. These, as well as criticism of corruption, injustice, and capitalism, were appealing to the rural population and the less affluent.
Ahmadinejad has also been vehemently criticizing Hassan Rouhani, the current Iranian president, as incompetent, and questioning his economic and foreign policies, and pointing out that, "There will be bumps and satanic obstacles in our path... One should not forget that the US is our enemy."
The latest poll by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland revealed that "Ahmadinejad now represents the single largest threat to Rouhani's re-election, and trails the once-popular incumbent by only eight points. Suddenly, the ex-president seems once again to be a real political contender."
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) can indeed be a viable contender against incumbent President Hassan Rouhani (right) in Iran's 2017 presidential election, and is more likely the choice of the Supreme Leader and hardliners.
This is a ripe environment for him for several reasons.
First of all, the nuclear deal has become a popular issue among the hardliners. The Supreme Leader and senior cadre of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been vocally critical of the nuclear deal. They fear further diplomatic and political rapprochement between the US and Iran, now that they have already achieved their objectives of the lifting of the four major rounds of the United Nations Security Council's sanctions.
Ayatollah Khamenei warned against any relations with the US, and he also questioned the economic benefits of the nuclear agreement: "Weren't the oppressive sanctions lifted so that the people would feel a change in their lives? Has there been a tangible effect on the people's lives in the past six months?"
Second, the popularity of the nuclear deal has been on a decline among the population as well. After the nuclear deal was implemented, polls showed that 63% of Iranians expected to see improvements in the economy and living standards within a year. But currently, in a new poll, 74%of Iranians said there had been no economic improvements in the past year.
Ahmadinejad can indeed be a viable contender against Hassan Rouhani, and is more likely the choice of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC leaders, and the candidate favored by the hardliners and principalists.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, political scientists and Harvard University scholar is president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org.