Ahmadinejad Abandons Presidential Hopes on Khamenei’s Advice

  • Former president ends speculation he’ll run again next year
  • Incumbent Rouhani expected to contest second term in May

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Source: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won’t try to get his old job back in next year’s election after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei advised him such a move would “polarize” the country.

In a letter addressed to Khamenei, Ahmadinejad pledged to take the advice Iran’s top authority gave him in an Aug. 30 meeting, according to a copy of the letter published by the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

Khamenei “explained that for this round, there is no benefit to my taking part in the elections and I announce my adherence to this,” Ahmadinejad said in the letter.

On Monday, Khamenei confirmed months of media speculation that Ahmadinejad was interested in running again, but was unlikely to get official approval to do so.

“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.

Ahmadinejad’s withdrawal from the race leaves open the question of who hardline factions will field as their favored candidate. Incumbent Hassan Rouhani, whose first term has been defined by last year’s nuclear accord with world powers and subsequent easing of crippling economic sanctions, is expected to stand for 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

Still, although 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. If 61 percent held a “very favorable” view of the president after the deal was signed, it’s now 38 percent. A strong majority remain broadly supportive, however, with less than 20 percent having an unfavorable opinion.

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 typically confirmed in the weeks leading up to the ballot.

Top Soldier

Ahmadinejad isn’t the first high-profile Iranian figure to pull out of the race before it’s even called. 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 that he, too, might contest the presidential elections. Soleimani’s popularity surged as he became the face of largely Shiite Iran’s fight against the Sunni jihadists of Islamic State.

Ahmadinejad’s absence 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 have split the vote. “I’m sure those candidates are visiting Ahmadinejad right now as we speak,” Izadi said.

Should Rouhani stand for a second term, he isn’t likely to get a free run, Zweiri said. 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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