It is time to think the unthinkable. Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s controversial aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has a chance of winning the presidential election in June.
The Iranian president has been grooming his chief of staff to step into his shoes, although many Iranians assume that Mashaei will not be allowed to stand because he will not pass the necessary vetting by the Guardian Council. Mashaei is detested both by senior clerics, who resent his tendency to put Iranian nationalism on a par with Islam, and by politicians in the fundamentalist (or “principle-ist”) camp. Many speak openly of a “deviant current” led by Ahmadinejad and Mashaei.
But don’t underestimate Mashaei. His ally and relative by marriage Ahmadinejad has been consistently underestimated since he first came forward as a presidential candidate in 2005. At the time, he refused a request from Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, eminence grise of the principle-ist camp, to stand down in favour of “better placed” candidates.
He has repeatedly shown an ability to exploit the vanities and misunderstandings of his critics – whether in Iran or outside. He has embraced the myths that he was a hostage-taker in 1979 or later a Revolutionary Guard officer. Throughout, this “man of the people”, this outsider to the political class, has shown a telling grasp of the mentality of the mass of the people.
Now Ahmadinejad and Mashaei are planning to make it difficult for the Council to block Mashaei’s candidacy. Their strategy is fourfold.
Firstly, populist measures, including cash handouts for most Iranians, have maintained the president”s and government”s popularity, especially among the poorer people who voted for Ahmadinejad in 2005 and 2009.
Secondly, the president has claimed he has dossiers on corruption in high places – which he highlighted in parliament in February when he played a tape purporting to show a brother of parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, engaged in insider dealing. We – and members of the Guardian Council – can only speculate over what other material the president has accumulated.
Thirdly, the president and his allies have been calling for a “fair” election. After the unrest following the disputed 2009 election, reformist candidates are unlikely to be approved by the Guardian Council. For the poll to have any credibility and for voters to be motivated, some contest is needed, and yet the candidates emerging from the principle-ist camp – perhaps with the exception of Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran – lack charisma.
The recent call through the Fars news agency from Mashaei for a “healthy and enthusiastic” presidential election signals the continuing determination of the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei camp to press this point. If they can generate a head of steam before the matter goes to the Council, then pressure on the Council increases. It is important also for Ayatollah Khamenei to secure a reasonably competitive election to bolster support for the “system” at a time of economic hardship due to sanctions and while sensitive negotiations with the west are needed to head off the prospect of military attack.
Fourthly, while Ahmadinejad and Mashaei lack friends in the Guardian Council, they still have their hands on levers of government power, including those at the Interior Ministry, which has important supervisory powers over the presidential election.
Their manoeuvres could also makes it difficult for the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who might be under pressure to instruct the Council to reverse a decision to bar a candidate, as he did in 2005 to allow the reformist Mostafa Moein to run.
But none of this would matter if Mashaei did not have a good chance of winning. So does he? “He can take the whole thing because he will be perceived as the anti-establishment candidate and because he has shown a steely resolve in the face of pretty wicked attacks, even when they come from those closest to the leader,” a well-placed analyst in Tehran said. “Mashaei is deeply intelligent and apparently very calm, while most of the other candidates should be viewed as museum pieces and not persons who can take Iran one step forward. If Mashaei can get on the ballot, he can win without any real manipulation.”
Ali Akbar Velayati, the Supreme leader’s senior advisor, seems to agree. He recently warned Fars news agency that if principle-ists were not united, then “those who are known as the ‘deviant current'” might triumph. “We must not let the election go to a run-off,” he said, no doubt reflecting fears that Mashaei would milk the extra public focus in a two-way second ballot, which would take place between the top two if no candidate won 50% on the first ballot.
This all leaves some important choices for Ayatollah Khamenei. For the Guardian Council to block Mashaei could provoke a serious political crisis and undermine the popular credibility of the election.
And yet for Mashaei to take part and win could mean the continuation of the inflationary populist economic policies, confusion in foreign policy, and tensions with senior clerics that have marked Ahmadinejad”s presidency.
Unless, of course, a president Mashaei and Ayatollah Khamenei could reforge the kind of alliance that characterised the early years of the Ahmadinejad presidency. This could see a diminished influence for senior clerics and greater use of an “egalitarian” nationalism as a unifying ideology.
“Ayatollah Khamenei is interested in a person with whom he can make a deal and agree on some ground rules,” said the analyst. “He knows none of the candidates announced so far can inspire anybody and he knows too the system needs a good clean if it is not to go into one of those long declines the country knows too well since the demise of the Safavids. Khamenei is looking to serve out his time in dignity, and he knows there has been no real success in cultivating a successor class of clerics under 40. Khamenei is not going to keep piling incompetence on incompetence, so perhaps Mashaei would make a good transition figure instead of the leader trying to hold back the sea.”
Transition to what? External opponents of the Islamic Republic will, as ever, say towards the collapse of the “system”. But Ayatollah Khamenei might think Mashaei could give a revamped “system” a new lease of life.
By The Guardian
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