Iran Election Watch 2013: The Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current – Much ado about nothing?

Editor’s note: As part of our Iran Election Watch 2013 series, we are analyzing the key political currents in the Islamic Republic. Today we look at the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current in part because of the prominence it has gained in the domestic Iranian and international press as of late.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a lame duck president. His policies, particularly in the economy and foreign policy, are largely perceived as failures by the Iranian public. He is under regular attack from the Iranian parliament and judiciary. Hardliners who supported him to the hilt during his first term now disparage him for his association with what they call the “deviant current”, their code for Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and his circle of supporters. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has stood firmly behind Ahmadinejad through thick and thin including the 2009-2011 Green Movement demonstrations, is now openly criticizing the president’s actions. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a man with few friends among Iran’s political elite, and the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current which he leads appears to be at a dead end.

And yet commentators inside and outside of Iran continue to tout him and his political current as serious contenders for power, especially in the upcoming 2013 Iranian presidential election. One of the latest narratives circulating in Iran even claims that he seeks to implement the Vladmir Putin – Dmitry Medveded scenario. The Iranian constitution limits a president to only two consecutive terms, meaning that after serving for eight years a president must be out of office for at least four years before standing again for a presidential electios. In the Putin-Medveded scenario, the current president’s most senior deputy Mashaei will become the next president, paving the way for Ahmadinejad to return to executive office in four years time. When these commentators are confronted with the reality that no presidential candidate from the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei circle is likely to be approved by the Guardian Council, they point to Ahmadinejad’s ability to create problems for the regime by revealing embarrassing secrets or using his presidential powers to disrupt the upcoming 14 June presidential election. On closer inspection, the emphasis on the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current may be much ado about nothing, at least in the long-term.

Can Ahmadinejad reveal embarrassing secrets about the regime? It certainly appears so. For years Ahmadinejad has hinted at being in possession of secrets regarding senior regime officials which he would be willing to use against them. During the 2009 Iranian presidential election campaign he repeatedly hinted at these secrets during one-on-one debates with Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohsen Rezaei. Just this past January he released a video which sparked the Larijani-gate corruption case. Not only was this action nearly unprecedented in the Islamic Republic’s history, but it also constituted an attack against one of the Islamic Republic’s most powerful political families. Furthermore, can Ahmadinejad use his powers as president to throw the regime into chaos? Again, it appears likely. He has been giving precisely such signals. Through the revelation of secrets and the use of the president’s powers, the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current could very well create a domestic political crisis in the coming months. But this should not distract us from the relative weakness of this political current and the realities of  power in the Islamic Republic.

Our knowledge of the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current remains limited. The true story about their rise to power will likely remain shrouded in secrecy for years to come. What we do know is that its two key figures, Ahmadinejad and Mashaei, emerged from the middle ranks of the Islamic Republic’s security services. Ahmadinejad held a number of mid-level administrative and advisory positions in north-western Iran, while Mashaei rose up the ranks of the intelligence ministry in the same politically sensitive region of the country. They both seem to have been part of the regime’s efforts to suppress ethnic rebellions in this region during the 1980s and 1990s. Beyond basic biographical details, it is unclear when Ahmadinejad and Mashaei first created their political current or what other majour players in Iran may support them.

What we do know is that Ahmadinejad was first elected to political office on a hardline Principalist platform in the 2003 city and village council elections, and selected as mayor by the Tehran City Council. At this time the Reformist movement, which rose and fell between 1997 and 2005, was on the retreat. A new generation of hardliners, many with security service backgrounds, was joining hands with older hardliners (sometimes referred to as “conservatives”) under the banner of Principalism. Ahmadinejad used the Tehran mayoralty as a stepping stone to the Iranian presidency. For days leading up to the 2005 Iranian presidential election, then Chief of Police Mohamamd-Bagher Ghalibaf was rumoured to be the candidate of Iran’s hardline political establishment. At the last minute, for reasons that remain unknown, hardliners appear to have switched their support to Ahmadinejad, who was subsequently elected president. For much of his first term (2005-2009), Ahmadinejad remained obedient to Khamenei and the hardline establishment, attacking the Reformists and Centrists, espousing an anti-imperialist (and anti-American) line in foreign policy, taking up the cause of social conservatism, and introducing his own brand of economic populism.

This quickly changed after 2009 when the Reformist (and Green) Movement was crushed and the Centrists were sent into retreat. Increasingly during the course of his second term (2009-2013), Ahmadinejad diverged from the Principalists, even the hardliners who had been his main base of support among Iran’s political elite. It is at this point that the figure of Mashaei came to the fore and Ahmadinejad began showing hitherto unseen political tendencies. Together, they introduced a new political discourse into the Islamic Republic which emphasized Iranian nationalism alongside a version of Shiite political Islam, sans the clergy as a corporate body. They argued for loosening of social restrictions, especially on the youth. They advocated economic reforms that, in the long-term, worked against the very working poor who were their main supporters at election time. Perhaps most importantly, they argued for a negotiated settlement of the nuclear crisis and better ties with the United States. Whereas in his first term Ahmadinejad appealed to Iran’s urban and rural working poor, during his second term he seems to have reached out to Iran’s important urban middle-class.

The Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current advanced its agenda by at least four primary. First, they attempted to create a social base, composed of the urban and rural working poor and to a lesser extent the urban middle-class, that would come out and vote for it during elections. It did this primarily through redistributive economic policies (such as subsidy reform rebate deposits) which promised to put the nation’s oil wealth on “the people’s dinner cloths”. Second, they attempted to create an economic base by using their power to award contracts, privatize state assets, and give low-interest loans to enrich close allies. Third, they attempted create base in the state bureaucracy by appointing loyalists to all of the positions under their purview, even when the appointees lacked even basic qualifications (the disastrous case of Ali Kordan comes to mind). Finally, they attempted to use their base in the Iranian intelligence community to gather secrets about the regime’s senior officials to use as blackmail or smear material.

This four pronged strategy appears to have largely failed. While segments of Iran’s working poor did turn out to support them during election time, they never became a mass movement and dissipated once elections ended. The urban middle-class was largely dismissive of the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current’s outreaches in part because of the president’s association with the crushing of the Green Movement. Their attempts at creating an economic base do not seem to have borne fruit, and their opponents link their economic activities to a number of recent financial corruption scandals. Their attempts to penetrate the Iranian state bureaucracy through appointment did not fare much better; many of the appointments that were not blocked by parliament were stopped by other means. Only their attempts to gather embarrassing secrets on senior officials may have met with some success, given that their main base of power looks as if it is mainly in the intelligence community. But even here their efforts have been frustrated. The 2011 Heydar Moslehi affair, in which Ahmadinejad tried to remove the sitting intelligence minister but was stopped by the supreme leader, appears to have been linked with the Ahmadinejad-Massaei Current’s attempt to expand their influence in the intelligence ministry and gather dirt on political rivals.

For the time being, the Khamenei continues to support Ahmadinejad despite his open challenges to the supreme leader. But it is clear that the hardline establishment is ready to abandon Ahmadinejad, and some are even sharpening their knives for him. Without any sizable social, economic, or bureaucratic base to support them, the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current is not long for this world. This may very well push the president and his most ardent supporters to create a domestic political crisis in the coming months. But this will not save them from the fate that likely awaits them, which at the very least will include exile from the center of the Iranian political stage.

Ahmadinejad’s intransigence and domestic political infighting has led some to conclude that Iran is weak and unable to seriously engage in nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 (UN Security Council Permanent Five plus Germany). This is especially easy to understand in light of Iran’s apparent retreat regionally, particularly in Syria. However such an analysis is flawed, at least in the long-term. The regime will likely not be prepared to negotiate with the P5+1 during the course of its election campaign. However, it appears to be slowly getting its house in order and creating a united hardline front domestically, which it will be successful in doing barring unforeseen events such as another election protest movement. (The  regime does seem concerned about the rise of precisely such a movement during the election as a result of the severe economic pressure on Iran over the last several years from domestic mismanagement, corruption, and economic reforms as well as international economic sanctions). Furthermore, while the Syrian civil war has no doubt eroded Iran’s regional clout, it is likely to retain significant influence in post-Bashar al-Assad Syria in one form or another.

Like many past revolutions, the Islamic Revolution has eaten many of its own children. Since the Islamic Republic’s inception in 1979, many political currents and figures have attained the presidency only to be ejected from power some years later. Few have proven themselves capable of taming the treacherous waters of Iranian politics. The Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current is only the latest example of this phenomenon. While they could create serious problems for the regime in the short-term and even continue to exist in some form after the 2013 election, they are very unlikely to be serious political players in the future.