Iran Election Watch 2013: Ahmadinejad’s dangerous game of chicken with the the Islamic Republic and why he does and does not matter

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s game of chicken with hardliners

As the 2013 Iranian presidential election campaign heats up the question of what role President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei will play has become a topic of increasing media scrutiny both inside and outside Iran. Many believe that Ahamdinejad’s ongoing provincial tours, among his myriad of other recent actions, are intended to mobilize support for Mashaei in the upcoming 14 June vote. Neo-Principalists, the hardline elements of the Islamic Republic, have however labeled Mashaei and his supporters the “deviant current” and threatened to confront them should they make a bid for the election.

Addressing his and Mashaei’s detractors at a stop in Ahvaz on 21 April, Ahmadinejad questioned why hardliners prejudged what candidates the Guardian Council, responsible for vetting presidential candidates, would and would not approve: “Some give prescriptions for the Guardian Council in advance. Who are you and with what right do you give opinions on behalf of other people and give prescriptions for the Guardian Council?” During a stop in the town of Haftgol the next day, Ahmadinejad escalated his rhetoric:

“Some say we will confront you [the Ahmadinejad administration]. Confront us, you are nothing before the nation to want to confront [us]. This nation stood against the superpowers and firmly slapped them and shall do so again. You are nothing. If we expose even the corner of each of your [personal] files, you shall no longer have a place among the nation of Iran.”

The Iranian president has threatened to embarrass his opponents by publicly airing their dirty laundry in the past. Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have deep ties in the security-intelligence community and appear to have been using their access to dig up dirt on political opponents. The president’s attempt to ouster Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi in 2011 is believed to have been linked to his efforts to collect compromising material on opponents.

The counterattacks against the Ahmadinejad by hardliners commenced almost immediately the following day. On 23 April armed forces Chief-of-Staff Majour-General Hassan Firouzabadi declared that: “The tension created by the honourable President Ahmadinejad in his trip to Khuzestan province is unacceptable and a provocation of public opinion.” It should be noted that “provocation of public opinion” denotes a crime in the Islamic Republic which many opposition figures have been charged with and received hefty prison sentences for in the past.

Kayhan daily newspaper Editor-in-Chief Hossein Shariatmadari, believed to be a mouthpiece for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was even harsher in his indictment of Ahmadinejad. In an editorial entitled “End of highway, drive carefully”, Shariatmadari harshly attacked Ahmadinejad and in particular his economic policies, saying that the president had failed to satisfy the people’s desire for economic justice.  Shariatmadari also taunted Ahmadinejad, saying that his comments in Ahvaz and Haftgol were not the first occasions on which the president had threatened to reveal compromising material on senior regime officials. Why not follow through on these threats, pondered Shariatmadari, unless the president is afraid of those who he is threatening. He asserted that if Ahmadinejad is indeed afraid:

“Firstly it must be said that [our] dear Iran does not need a cowardly president and secondly you who so heatedly say that the nation shall slap them, what do you have to fear? … The 34 year history of the revolution has taught us that these kinds of claims normally come from those who are afraid of revelations about some of their own behind the scenes issues.”

Shariatmadari concluded on a dark note, saying: “Mr. President, in your final months in office, do not sabotage your achievements.”

Why Ahmadinejad does and does not matter

As we noted recently, the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current has strong roots in the security-intelligence community. It is not unlikely that during their eight years in power they have collected compromising material on various key political actors in Iran. And as Ahmadinejad’s very embarrassing revelations regarding Javad Larijani demonstrated, he is willing to use this compromising material to de-legitimize his political opponents. Furthermore, the outgoing president still has power over key political and economic levers, enabling him to sabotage the country’s political and economic system to some degree. Finally, Ahmadinejad’s escalating rhetoric and actions reveal that he is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the Islamic Republic’s leadership. He is in effect threatening to sink the Islamic Republic if Mashaei or another close ally is not allowed to participate in the election (and presumably win). Why? Ahmadinejad and his allies have likely calculated that the presidency will continue to be an important position of power in Iran. At a time when hardliners are sharpening their knives for the outgoing president and his coterie, the latter may view this as the only guarantor of their survival. These various factors make Ahmadinejad potentially dangerous for a political system still recovering from the damage done to its legitimacy by the 2009-2011 Green Movement. Ahmadinejad has it within his power to create a profound domestic crisis in the lead up to the 14 June election. This is why Ahmadinejad will matter at least until the end of voting.

However, Ahmadinejad’s escalatory rhetoric and actions may be based on an overestimation of his political strength or a sense of desperation. Ahmadinejad’s provincial tours, as will as his recent disappointing “rally” at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, demonstrate that the president does not have the kind of social base, either among Iran’s working or middle-class, to generate pressure on the regime from the street. At the same time, Ahmadinejad’s key political weapon which he continues to advertise, compromising material on key political actors in Iran, is not as strong as he perceives. The Islamic Republic is not a liberal democracy whose rulers can be overturned by such revelations. Authoritarian regimes such the one in Iran are better suited to surviving Watergate or Wikileaks-style scandals because they are not accountable to their people to the same extent as democracies. Thus, while Ahmadinejad can create a domestic crisis, it appears that it is not within his power to emerge victorious from any such crisis or even fundamentally threaten the survival of the regime.

The Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current’s political survival is however in doubt. Firouzabadi’s claim that Ahmadinejad’s words are a “provocation of public opinion” indicates that the regime may be willing to carry out criminal proceedings against him in the future. Shariatmadari’s musings that Ahmadinejad may in fact be afraid of those he is threatening may indicate that hardliners may also have some compromising material on the outgoing president. Ahmadinejad is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the Islamic Republic, but the hardliners who control the regime are not blinking.