With U.S.-Iran tensions on the rise, not to mention lots of people going out saying dubious things about the Holocaust, it might seem like a prefect time for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attempt a political comeback. The hardline former president, who served two terms from 2005 to 2013, surprised many in Iran today by registering as a candidate in the May 19 presidential election. The move was a shock because Ahmadinejad was reportedly told not to run last year by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s ultimate political authority. Khamenei had a public falling out with Ahmadinejad, who was seen by the clerical establishment as too power-hungry, in the last few years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Khamenei told his former ally to stay out of the race “both for his own good and also for the good of the country.” Ahmadinejad says the recommendation was “just advice.”
The election is likely to come down to a referendum on the 2015 nuclear deal, opposed by hardliners like Ahmadinejad. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate whose signature issue has been improving the economy by seeking better relations with the West, is widely expected to run for a second term. He’ll face a challenge from hardliners who want a more aggressive response to Donald Trump’s America, and he could have trouble with poorer voters who haven’t yet seen the economic benefits he promised. Though Ahmadinejad is still a controversial figure due to his mishandling of the economy as well as the bloody resolution of the 2009 protests of his re-election, the religiously devout, populist firebrand could be well-positioned to capitalize on this political moment, but there may be less to the announcement than meets the eye.
While more than 120 candidates have already put their name forward, the final list of those allowed to run for president will be vetted and published by the clerical Guardian Council on April 27. Women and dissidents can probably expect to be disqualified. Ahmadinejad’s defiance of the Supreme Leader might also count against him.
The registration seems mostly to have been a way to give publicity to his ally, former Vice President Hamid Baghaei, who also registered. “I registered merely to support Baghaei and I will act according to the [supreme] leader’s advice,” Ahmadinejad said. Baghaei was jailed for unclear reasons for several months in 2015, and Ahmadinejad’s high-profile stunt may have been a way to put pressure on the Guardian Council not to disqualify him. It’s also a challenge to other hardliners, who are said to have mostly coalesced around another candidate, cleric Ebrahim Raisi.
Ahmadinejad, who bedeviled the Bush and Obama administrations for eight years, is probably not actually returning to the presidency, but if he takes on a more high-profile role, or at least boosts the fortunes of Iran’s hardliners, it will be a further blow to the nuclear deal, which is already under major pressure from a hostile new government in Washington.