When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leaves office, after finishing his second four-year term as Iran’s president, his tenure as the firebrand public face of a country, almost exclusively seen in Western media as a pariah and a threat to world security, will have left a lasting impact on the international stage. Mainly on account of a series of politically distasteful opinions, from his denial of the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel to the claim that no gays exist in Iran, his international legacy will not soon be forgotten. He is sure to be the safest object of reference and scorn for years to come for those seeking an example of a defiant ruler professing his own outspoken beliefs or as a ruler indicative of a country allegedly unhinged from the norms of politically acceptable behavior. But as overpowering as this image of him may be, it obscures the much more important part of his legacy: his domestic one.
Certainly, a large part of Ahamadinejad’s legacy in Iran accords with his international image and is deeply tied to the way in which Iran is perceived in the world. Ahmadinejad is seen as an off-the-cuff politician, whose blustering statements and rants have detrimentally affected Iran’s position in the world, and confirmed other countries’ worst fears of it—which in the end, has made the passing of sanctions that much easier. He has occupied the office of the presidency as an ahmagh (fool), who presided over a floundering domestic economy and whose own behavior did neither him nor the country any favors. He was unquestionably the regime’s favored candidate in the 2009 elections, when his victory was thrown into question amid outcries of election fraud. Then, regime security personnel and regime-friendly forces took to the streets and brutally repressed the protests challenging the election outcome, backing the result that kept him in office. Ahmadinejad—the outspoken politician who seems to have stumbled into the presidency—appeared to be the regime’s man at all costs. For many inside Iran he will always be remembered as such, regardless of any other aspects of his tenure to the contrary. He will stand as the symbol of the ruling establishment’s willingness to deny the voice of the people through one of the few democratic rights accorded to them.
Depending on the nature of the next president’s tenure, Ahmadinejad may come to be remembered as something quite different: the last man who sought to use the presidency to challenge Iran’s Supreme Leader in pursuit of greater independence for one of Iran’s republican institutions. If this is the case, then the impact of his legacy upon the future functioning of the structures within Iran will have a far greater impact than his legacy as a tactless politician, his association with regime in the contested 2009 elections, or even that of his immediate predecessors (whether it be Mohammad Khatami’s ephemeral successes at expanding the margins of cultural reform and call for a “dialogue of civilizations,” or Hashemi Rafsanjani’s pragmatic politics of the post-Khomeini, post-Iran-Iraq War reconstruction period).
The manner in which Ahmadinejad’s legacy may come to be most closely associated with the future dynamic between one of Iran’s republican and non-republican institutions stems from the aftermath of the 2009 elections, and the ensuing split that occurred between him and many of the regime’s insiders. Following the regime’s backing of the 2009 election result, Ahmadinejad was led to believe he accrued (or deserved) sufficient political capital to maneuver more independently of the dictates and preference of the Supreme Leader and the latter`s loyal allies among the conservative principilist faction, who control many sensitive positions throughout the government. Ahmadinejad thus used the office of the presidency to undertake a series of attempted appointments and firings of various ministerial positions, the net result of which was to place his closest supporters in the corridors of power at the expense of those directly loyal to the Supreme Leader. It is a tale rife with ironies: the candidate whose victory to the office of president was unequivocally approved, and perhaps ensured, by the Supreme Leader, later used that victory, and his office, to undermine the benefactor who so recently supported him. It appears likely that he will be the last president afforded such an opportunity.
If the 2013 presidential election vetting process is any indication, then no future president may be in position to challenge the Supreme Leader and his allies among the ruling elite. This will largely occur as a result of being disallowed to even run for office in the first place. Both Hashemi Rafsanjani (the consummate insider and inter-faction mediator) and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie (Ahmadinejad’s closest advisor and handpicked successor), each representative of factions other than that in control of the regime, have been barred from participating. It appears that the ruling establishment is not taking any more chances on an unpredictable president (or electoral process), but destined to place one of their own in office.
This was not always the case. In the past, there may have been preferred candidates, but not necessarily pre-determined ones. The starkest change to this program may have occurred in the contested 2009 elections (though it is claimed by some that the regime had a hand in Ahmadinejad’s 2005 victory as well). when it is likely the preferred candidate (Ahmadinejad) was pushed over the finish line after the results were already in. Now the vetting process has been moved up to occur prior to the elections themselves, where candidates unaligned to the Supreme Leader can no longer be trusted to even run. Ahmadinejad was once presumed to be ever obliging to the Supreme Leader and his loyal coterie of conservatives until it turned out he was more interested in obtaining a more active role for himself and that of his supporters. The ruling establishment now appears less willing to leave anything to chance; any semblance of having a choice of candidate outside of those pre-ordained by the Supreme Leader is gone. That Ayatollah Khamenei recently felt the urge to state that no one knows whom the next president of Iran will be, only underscores the regime’s attempts to combat the notion that the end result of the election is anything but foregone and predictable.
Ahmadinejad’s second term in office had sufficiently worried the core of the ruling establishment enough, perhaps unlike any previous president, that they were unwilling to let his actions stand as precedents. First, they did not like the way in which he raised the profile of the office of the president at the expense of the Supreme Leader: internationally, through his outspoken pronouncements on foreign policy, Iran’s nuclear program, and overall role in the world; domestically, through his unwillingness to follow the Supreme Leader’s preferences on whom to promote and appoint to various positions. Second, they did not like him using the office of the president to bolster and enfranchise his network of allies and supporters, both inside and outside the government. Inside the government, Ahmadinejad had the potential ability to reshape the political landscape in Iran at the institutional level as the figurehead of the new Jebheh-ye Paydari (Steadfast Front)—which began running parliamentary candidates in 2012. But it has always been his potential impact outside of the government, the types of supporters he was attracting, and the manner in which he was positioning himself rhetorically within the Islamic Republic’s political landscape that worried regime insiders even more. Ahmadinejad preached a brand of populism that meshed with the downtrodden and disaffected. He spoke to those in rural areas who benefited from his economic policies. He connected to the rank and file military men and basij, to those who bled for the regime in the Iran-Iraq War—their most formative experience since the Islamic Republic’s inception—but felt somewhat looked over by those in power. Ahmadinejad was trying to beat the conservatives elements of the regime at their own game, seeking to attract the same brand of supporter they have traditionally relied on. The difference was that he did so by presenting a slightly different version of themselves: a younger, hungrier, less elite and clerical version—equally willing to buy into the precepts of the Islamic Republic as the old guard in power, only believing that it was their just due to take over and receive some of the revolution’s largesse more directly.
It is not surprising that the clerical and technocratic conservative elite, who occupy some of the upper echelons of power and are associated with Ayatollah Khamenei, would not stand for this. They could not sit idly by while being outflanked by a figure espousing populist rhetoric and making inroads into constituencies that they, as the old guard in charge of the reins of power and self-proclaimed protector’s of the revolution, have claimed as their own. It is one thing to face a threat from the reformers, whom the regime is used to handling, marginalizing, and, if need be, portray as falling outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse and as threats to the stability of the Islamic Republic. It is another thing to confront a challenge from someone drawing upon the same rhetoric as the ruling clique in power and wooing their very same constituencies, only not in pursuit of their aims but his own.
Ahmadinejad apparently thought he was playing by the rules of the system, by leveraging his position as president to build up a support network. However, those hardliners and conservatives of the establishment—who actually make the rules of the system, particularly through high-level positions sprinkled throughout the government’s religious super bodies—saw his actions as a threat to their power. So they sought to curtail his influence by disparaging him and his aides. However, Ahmadinejad did not back down when his former backers criticized him, and the Supreme Leader admonished him, and some of his aides and allies were marginalized and arrested to silence him. Rather, he doubled-down, fighting back by using the rhetoric that this old guard knew only too well, having leveled it against their own opponents time and again, whether before or after the revolution, usurping it as his own. Ahmadinejad accused some among their ranks of corruption and nepotism, smearing his one-time allies and the ones that supported him through the 2009 elections as government insiders, fat-cats, and ones who manipulate the system to their own advantage—the last of which, incidentally, was all he was trying to do anyway. He was a man ensconced within the system—in the Office of President, no less—using the same rhetorical framework set up by the conservatives to take them to task and highlight their hypocrisy. The continued backing and alliance with Ahmadinejad was simply becoming too costly for the ruling establishment to bear, both in the way the president sought to challenge their power and their image—so much so that even his ideological mentor, hard-line cleric Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi was forced to re-think his association with his one-time protégé.
Ahmadinejad’s support within the system had withered, above all else from the Supreme Leader who once blessed his rule. Ayatollah Khamenei distanced himself from the soon-to-be former president’s 2009 candidacy, and even hinted that the position of president could be abolished altogether. The man who skyrocketed to the presidency and was once held in favor by the ruling establishment has been cast aside, pushed out of the corridors of power. before he was actually set to leave office. He will now be left to contemplate how to exert influence and power from the outside, potentially consigned to the role of opposition alongside his predecessors, Rafsanjani and Khatami.
As a result of Ahmadinejad’s tenure in office, it is unlikely any future president will be allowed to utilize the presidency as an alternative power center at the expense of the Supreme Leader again, or as a tool to establish his own powerbase of supporters. It should then come as no surprise that the candidates allowed to stand in the 2013 election are nearly all aligned with the Supreme Leader. Of course, it is possible for a candidate to catch the regime off-guard and turn out differently than expected once elected: Mohammad Khatami did it and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accomplished the feat as well. However, if the regime—particularly the conservative principilist faction that controls its major levers of power—has their way, then they will at least try to ensure that such a scenario will be less likely to occur.
By tightening their hold over one of the last critical positions operating with maneuverability and a version of independence within the state apparatus, the likelihood of an individual able to manipulate the office of the presidency as a potential counterweight to some of the government’s non-republican institutions will decrease, if not disappear altogether. It may then bring clarity to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s longest lasting legacy yet: he was the last president of Iran who was to seek out for his office a path of greater independence from the country’s Supreme Leader. Whether he did so for his own personal gain or not makes little difference. Nor should it matter that various institutions are at the mercy of a particular political faction or another, looking to impose its will on the direction of the government—whether it is the predominant principilist conservative faction or Ahmadinejad’s aspiring one. What matters above all else is not who is in charge, but the end result itself. In the case of Ahmadinejad’s defiant presidency, and the upcoming elections, the end result is that one of the republican institutions within the state apparatus will likely be more closely linked and subordinated to one of its non-republican entities more than ever before, perhaps nullifying its independence altogether.