Khamenei to Ahmadinejad: Running for Iran President a Bad Idea

  • Ends speculation that former leader will run again next year
  • Incumbent Rouhani expected to contest second term in May

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei advised former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not to seek a return to the post in next year’s election, saying his participation would “polarize” the country.

“I didn’t tell him don’t run, I said it’s not in your own or the country’s best interests to run,” Khamenei said, according to an audio file of his speech on the website of the semi-official Fars news agency.

The statement confirms months of media speculation that Ahmadinejad wanted to run but might not win official backing. It also leaves open the question of who hardline factions will support. Incumbent Hassan Rouhani, whose first period in office has been defined by last year’s nuclear accord with world powers and subsequent easing of crippling economic sanctions, is expected to seek re-election.

During his second stint as president through 2013, Ahmadinejad clashed with religious authorities and his foreign policy statements isolated the Islamic Republic, Mahjoob Zweiri, associate professor in Middle Eastern history and politics at Qatar University, said by phone. “He wasn’t exactly bringing good luck to the system.”

Rouhani, on the other hand, “is a son of the establishment,” Zweiri said, and they’d “be happy for him to continue.”

Accord Coup

While the nuclear deal ended restrictions on Iran’s oil sales in global markets and opened the country to foreign investment, Rouhani’s diplomatic coup is yet to deliver a material improvement to the lives of most Iranians, and frustration is rising.

A poll published in July captured the discontent. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed by Toronto-based IranPoll.com for the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies said their living conditions hadn’t improved. Only 42 percent judged the economy was getting better, down from 57 percent last year.

Nearly three-quarters said Rouhani had been “somewhat or very unsuccessful” in cutting unemployment. While 61 percent held a “very favorable” view of the president after the deal was signed, it’s now 38 percent. Still, a strong majority remain broadly supportive, with less than 20 percent having an “unfavorable” opinion of Rouhani.

The presidential vote is likely to take place in May, ahead of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, according to Iran’s Interior Ministry which is expected to officially announce the date in November. Candidates are only typically confirmed in the weeks leading up to the ballot.

Top Soldier

Earlier this month, leading military commander Qassem Soleimani said he hoped to remain a soldier “until the end” of his life, in remarks seen as a riposte to weeks of media speculation he might contest the presidential elections. Soleimani’s popularity surged as he became the most high-profile face of largely Shiite Iran’s fight against the Sunni jihadists of Islamic State.

The absence of Ahmadinejad from the poll might not benefit Rouhani, said Fouad Izadi, a member of the Faculty of World Studies at Tehran University and a critic of the nuclear accord. The divisive politician may have split the bloc of ultra conservatives and hardliners, pushing some into Rouhani’s camp, he said.

Out of the race, he’d be free to endorse a like-minded candidate who wouldn’t face the same problem. “I’m sure those candidates are visiting Ahmadinejad right now as we speak,” Izadi said.

Rouhani, if he decides to stand for a second term, is unlikely to get a free run, said Zweiri. Top authorities “will allow more than one candidate, whether it’s a reformist or conservative, and they will leave it to the people,” he said. “But they will put a little bit of stress on Hassan Rouhani.”

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