x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Iran's clerics wary of Mashaei, the man who 'bewitched' Ahmadinejad

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei will likely run for president, adding drama and intrigue for the June 14 election. Michael Theodoulou reports

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie at an Iranian expatriates summit in Tehran in 2009. Behrouz Mehri / AFP
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie at an Iranian expatriates summit in Tehran in 2009. Behrouz Mehri / AFP

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has added a new dimension to the race to elect his successor by promoting his closest and most controversial aide for the post - an enigmatic figure the Iranian president's enemies claim has "bewitched" him.

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, 52, has yet to announce he will run. But the increasing likelihood he will has added drama and intrigue to contest for the June 14 presidential election, even though the regime strictly limits voter choice.

Mr Mashaei, suave, tall and ambitious, once infuriated Iran's ruling hardliners by praising the United States as "one of the great nations of the world". On another occasion he proclaimed that Iranians are "friends of all people - even Israelis".

But his alleged sins in the eyes of Iran's traditional conservative leaders go deeper. He is accused of heading a "deviant current" in Mr Ahmadinejad's administration that promotes Iranian nationalism over clerical rule.

To the West, the outgoing president, who is constitutionally bound to step down after two consecutive and turbulent four-year terms, is the defiant face of Iran's clerical establishment.

But at home, that establishment views him as a thorn in its side, an ungrateful populist who repeatedly has dared challenge the authority of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Encouraged by the ayatollah, conservatives and the Revolutionary Guard united behind Mr Ahmadinejad four years ago to crush the reformist "Green movement" that took to the streets in huge numbers to protest against his "stolen" re-election.

Now, despite its political dominance, and with the reformists still repressed and marginalised, Iran's hardline old guard is jittery about Mr Ahmadinejad's plans to field the most quixotic member of his inner circle against his former allies.

The incumbent apparently is relying on Mr Mashaei, his main ideas-man and former chief-of-staff, to hold his position until he can make a Vladimir Putin-style comeback in 2017. Mr Putin served as prime minister of Russia between two stints as president.

Mr Mashaei also represents an insurance policy for the president who wants protection for himself and his allies - many of whom face serious legal charges of financial mismanagement and corruption - once he stands down.

The two men have been close friends since the mid-1980s when both held posts in Iran's security and intelligence forces. They are also bound by family ties: the president's eldest son is married to Mr Mashaie's daughter.

At stump speeches across the country, Mr Ahmadinejad has shown a softer side by gushing about his in-law. "I can testify that this man loves all human beings," he effused at one stop.

At another, he "thanked God for having the opportunity to get to know Mashaei" who has a "heart like a mirror". The two men were also photographed last month crying at an event for children with cancer.

Mr Ahmadinejad has taken to using the rousing if cryptic slogan, "Long Live Spring!" in his speeches. Many see this as an allusion to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings; a call for political change that his hardline rivals condemn as "provocative".

Iran's reformists, meanwhile, see the motto as deeply ironic, given that Mr Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the security forces brutally snuffed out Iran's own pro-democracy uprising four years ago.

Mr Mashaei's critics believe his charisma alone cannot explain his influence over the president. Some have likened him to Rasputin, the Russian mystic who became a close adviser to the last tsar.

Two years ago a powerful hardline cleric, who once championed the president, said Mr Mashaei had put Mr Ahmadinejad "under a spell". No other "sane person" would behave like the president unless "his free will has been taken away", Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi said.

Many analysts believe that, should he stand, Mr Mashaei will be disbarred by a hardline vetting body, the Guardian Council, which is controlled by the supreme leader.

After all, four years ago, Mr Khamenei forced Mr Ahmadinejad to ditch Mr Mashaei as his first vice president, just days after appointing him. Defiantly, Mr Ahmadinejad instead made his in-law his chief-of-staff.

To block a potential victory by Mr Mashaei - assuming he is allowed to run - Mr Khamenei has turned to a three-man alliance of loyal, high-ranking hardliners. They say only one will eventually run as a "unity" candidate to avoid splitting the vote against any Ahmadinejad-backed hopeful.

Mr Ahmadinejad appears to be banking on his populist appeal to force the Guardian Council to consider Mr Mashaei too prominent to reject.

But the president appears to have overestimated his own popularity.

This month he called a political rally at Tehran's biggest football stadium where he apparently planned to showcase Mr Mashaei as his anointed heir. Embarrassingly, there were rows of empty stands in the 100,000 capacity Azadi (Freedom) stadium, and Mr Mashaei failed to show up, possibly because of the lacklustre turnout.

Even so, Mr Ahmadinejad has vowed to oppose any "violation" in the electoral process; an implicit warning that he will not accept Mr Mashaei's disqualification. The outgoing president, a political street-fighter, has often warned he has incriminating intelligence files on his enemies that he will unveil if they push him too far.

Some of Mr Ahmadinejad's hardline opponents also have voiced concern that he may try to foment unrest in the run-up to the election if his ambitions are thwarted.

But many analysts doubt that the president has the popularity or power to do so.

"Ahmadinejad simply does not have a significant social base to stir up unrest in the country," said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.

Moreover, she said, the main election issue will be the economy.

So even if Mr Mashaei is allowed to run, he stands little chance of victory because he is associated with the president's inflationary economic policies which have relied on cash handouts to the poor to win their support.

"Mashaei hasn't done or said anything that suggests his policies will be different from his boss," Ms Farhi said. And so far "all the declared candidates are trying hard to explain how they will NOT run the country and economy the way Ahmadinejad has".

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae