The big political comeback of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to have been scuttled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who told Ahmadinejad not to run for president in the May elections, according to Iran’s state-run media.
“Ahmadinejad had not announced any plans to run in the vote scheduled for May, but has made several speeches in recent months, prompting speculation of a political comeback,” Reuters reports. “Commentators had suggested the firebrand populist, who frequently enraged the West with his rhetoric during his eight years in office, would have given Iran’s conservatives their best chance of regaining power.”
Khamenei told the IRNA news agency that Ahmadinejad asked for his advice, “and I told him not to stand, as I think it is not in his interest and that of the country.”
The Ayatollah added that he thought an Ahmadinejad run would “create bipolar opposites and divisions in the country, which I believe is harmful.”
According to some other accounts, such as that written by AFP, Khamenei was careful not to name Ahmadinejad, referring to him only as “a certain person,” but everyone knew whom he was talking about.
As Reuters observes, this would appear to knock out the second major challenger to current president Hassan Rouhani’s re-election. The first, highly popular Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani — seen as a war hero for his exploits against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq — said he would not run for president earlier this month.
AFP suggests Khamenei was sending a message to Ahmadinejad on behalf of Iran’s “conservatives” or “hard-liners,” who might be worried about his populist appeal to poor and rural voters and have bad memories of the weak Iranian economy and endemic corruption at the end of Ahmadinejad’s original term.
One cleric declared Ahmadinejad “must be very thankful and grateful for the leader’s advice and he will definitely listen to this advice and not run for the election, and will be of service to people in some other position.”
The New York Times notes that such “advice” from the Supreme Leader is widely interpreted as the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidential aspirations, but technically the Ayatollah doesn’t have the power to bar candidates from running, a point raised after Khamenei’s remarks by a major pro-Ahmadinejad website.
The Washington Post speculates that Khamenei might be attempting to send a signal of qualified support to Rouhani by preemptively squashing Ahmadinejad’s campaign, after months of Rouhani’s critics complaining that the nuclear deal hasn’t brought the promised economic benefits to Iran.
“Khamenei also could be dealing a bit of payback to Ahmadinejad, who openly feuded with the ruling clerics during his final years in office over issues such as cabinet appointments,” the Post suggests.