At the beginning of the week, Ahmadinejad set out to visit several West African countries (Benin, Niger and Ghana). For Ahmadinejad, the visit is a welcome respite from the battle that is heating up in the domestic arena ahead of the upcoming presidential elections scheduled to take place in June. Criticism against the President and his government is growing, as are the unflattering summaries of the newly ended Persian year, with the main criticism focusing on poor economic performance with high unemployment and surging inflation.
Ahmadinejad, who is legally prohibited from running for another term, is continuing his efforts to position his candidate to continue his path. His preferred candidate is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a relative and confidante, but the Guardian Council will probably disqualify him. The President is therefore trying to promote other candidates (whose names have not yet been disclosed).
The sharp criticism leveled against Ahmadinejad is not interfering with his efforts to promote his candidates, and he has even stated his support of them during large-scale events such as the conference at Azadi (“freedom”) Stadium in which he reportedly expressed support for Mashaei. Ahmadinejad appeared in public with Mashaei and even recently symbolically transferred the Iranian flag to him. The move was considered highly controversial among political and military circles, which perceived it as interfering in the elections prior to the start of official election campaigns as prescribed by law. Ahmadinejad was recently attacked for using the slogan “Long Live Spring,” which is also being used by Mashaei.
Anyone leaving Iran to travel overseas can see quotes by Mashaei that may indicate his intention to run for president in the upcoming elections on the screens at Imam Khomeini Airport (Mashaei has not officially announce his candidacy yet). The big question looming overhead on the Iranian political scene is whether Ahmadinejad will risk his remaining political capital to declare and/or support Mashaei’s candidacy, although it is believed that the Guardian Council will disqualify him in light of his being known as a leader of the “deviant current” in Iran.
Opinion in Iran on the issue is divided and many believe that Ahmadinejad’s posturing, over the past year, as if to anger Mashaei, despite criticism and sharp attacks against the two and even the claims that they are inciting against Iran’s Supreme Leader, and disagree with the principle of the Velayat-e Faqih, ultimately indicate that in the end Ahmadinejad will declare his support of Mashaei’s candidacy for president. A recent poll conducted by ISNA reveals that Ahmadinejad’s supporters have support (over 20,000 respondents participated in the survey, although the editors wrote that it does not reflect real results).
In any case, the issue of the elections is already at the center of Iranian political discourse, with the nuclear issue at the forefront. Popular opinion in Iran is that they have failed and have not achieved the (pretentious) goal set by Iran – lifting of sanctions and recognition of Iran’s legitimate right to nuclear energy. One way or another, this issue will be at the top of the agenda regarding the new foreign policy to be formed by the next Iranian government. An indication of this is already seen in statements made by Hassan Rouhani, former head of the nuclear negotiations team with the West, who recently announced his candidacy for presidency, possibly earning the support of Rafsanjani. Rouhani defended the negotiating tactics in his time, which did not bring Iran to the brink of war and did not cause the nuclear case to be subject to the UN Security Council. He also expressed implied criticism over the way in which the nuclear talks are being conducted under Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
The Supreme Leader’s representative in the IRGC emphasized that in the upcoming elections, a “person with strong capabilities” should win and lead Iran out of the stormy waters of economic difficulties (some of which are attributed to the sanctions imposed on Iran). The IRGC claims that it does not intend to intervene in the elections (primarily through the Basij, which are located in cities and towns across the country), but it appears that preparations have begun to see which way the wind is blowing, and particularly the Supreme Leader’s stance and which candidate the people should support “within the confines of the law” and not as part of “elections engineering,” a phrase that has recently become popular in Iran and is the fruit of intimations of IRGC officials and experience from the last election.
One way or the other, Mashaei or any other candidate sponsored by Ahmadinejad and his supporters or any candidate from any other stream will need the Supreme Leader’s blessing and some assistance from the IRGC on elections day.