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As Ahmadinejad's term ends, will he spoil Iran's election?

In less than eight months, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will leave office - but he may yet sabotage Iran's coming contest

'Who will win the June 2013 presidential elections?" These days, this is the question on the lips of every Iran analyst. But there is a more interesting one to be asked. What will come of the infamous Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after his term expires?

According to the Iranian constitution, he cannot serve more than two terms. For his foes, this means that in less than eight months, they will be rid of him.

Not everyone is that patient, however. Two former ministers of Mr Ahmadinejad's cabinet have written to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and suggested the president's immediate dismissal, a proposal which has the support of a few Revolutionary Guard generals and members of the parliaments. In November, for the second time, Iran's parliament summoned Mr Ahmadinejad for questioning, which could have led to his impeachment.

Mr Ahmadinejad's biggest concern should be his many foes. Apparently he does not care, since he continues to harass and anger his rivals. He disregards the decisions of the parliament; he writes open letters to Iran's chief justice accusing him of going against the constitution and violating the human rights of political prisoners; he has even publicly humiliated the Revolutionary Guard - which was once believed to be on his side - accusing members of smuggling.

Mr Ahmadinejad knows that he will face serious retribution as soon as he leaves office. There are cases against him and his close allies that are ready, some of which were opened in two years ago. In June 2011, his assistant Mohamad Sharif Malekzadeh was detained for a period of time. This September, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who managed the president's media apparatus, was sent to prison. The Iranian regime will not even tolerate pro-Ahmadinejad blogs that have small readerships. In the past year, at least 13 bloggers have been arrested.

A former lawmaker told me that all that is preventing Mr Ahmadinejad from being torn apart is the supreme leader's permission. So far, Ayatollah Khamenei has let him off the hook.

But don't be mistaken - the supreme leader is not happy with the president either. Not only has Mr Ahmadinejad defied his wishes, but he has not shied away from publicly challenging him.

The former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also had many differences with the supreme leader, yet never exposed them. Instead, they always publicly respected him.

During the 2009 disputed presidential election, Ayatollah Khamenei risked his relations with the majority of Iranian people by backing Mr Ahmadinejad. That led to the biggest challenge for the Islamic Republic regime to date. So it is no surprise to find Ayatollah Khamenei tolerating Mr Ahmadinejad just to save face.

Rumour has it that Mr Ahmadinejad has been gathering cases of corruption and criminal activities committed by different state officials to use in his own defence. For example, last summer, the pro-Ahmadinejad media published documents that showed evidence that Mohammad Javad Larijani - the brother of Iran's chairman of parliament and its chief justice - was involved in financial fraud.

Eight years ago, when Mr Ahmadinejad was running in the presidential race, many believed him to be a naive and superstitious man, but today he is known to be politically devious and talented.

Needless to say, Mr Ahmadinejad is thinking about a successor for the upcoming presidential elections. His supporters explicitly speak about finding a "Medvedev" for him, a place holder such as Vladimir Putin's ally in Russia. Although it is unlikely that the Guardian Council - which approves presidential candidates - would allow such a person, it is more unlikely that Mr Ahmadinejad will quietly defer. This is what Iran's oligarchy is afraid of: it is possible that Mr Ahmadinejad will not allow the elections to take place, which is very concerning to the Islamic Republic.

This has happened once before. In 2004, the Guardian Council did not allow a reformist candidates to participate in the parliamentary elections and Mohammad Khatami, the president at the time, threatened to prevent the elections. Mr Khatami eventually relented, but Mr Ahmadinejad has proven to be unafraid of playing dangerous games.

Mr Ahmadinejad has shown his generosity in spending oil money on buying votes. In a TV interview on December 22, he indicated that monthly cash subsidies must be increased. Such a decision could be economic suicide for a country already crippled by sanctions. However, one or two months before elections, it could be enough to change the vote.

The current parliament is rushing to pass an act to confine the government's power in presidential elections. In spite of that, the president has the ability to manipulate the vote through his countrywide network of administration.

For all that, Mr Ahmadinejad has neither an organised social base willing to take to streets, nor does he control the power of the Revolutionary Guards and the police. So, he knows he must secure his future before entirely losing his power. Is he inclined to negotiate with the ruling regime? Are the different factions in the regime willing to put aside their resentments and let him back into the game? If the answer is no, this is going to be Mr Ahmadinejad's last bet in which he go all in.


Ali Reza Eshraghi is a former senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Editor's note: The fourth paragraph of this article has been amended to clarify that members of the Revolutionary Guard were accused of smuggling, not human trafficking.

Updated: December 31, 2012 04:00 AM



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