Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei blocks Ahmadinejad’s comeback

Leader says former president’s bid for a third term would be ‘detrimental’ for country

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose two-term rule saw the country increasingly isolated internationally, said he will not stand again. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose two-term rule saw the country increasingly isolated internationally, said he will not stand again. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 
Iran’s supreme leader has blocked former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from contesting next year’s elections, in a move that highlights the struggle among hardliners to identify a suitable candidate to take on Hassan Rouhani.

Mr Ahmadinejad has been touring the country in recent weeks to drum up support ahead of the May polls with regime hardliners desperate to prevent Mr Rouhani, the centrist president, from securing a second term.

But Ayatollah Khamenei, the Islamic republic’s ultimate decision-maker, said on Monday that if Mr Ahmadinejad ran in the election it “will be detrimental for the country”.

Analysts say his decision was intended to avoid provoking middle-class voters who fear that if the former president returned to office it would damage Iran’s international relations and could lead to a crackdown on reformers and a rise in corruption.

Mr Ahmadinejad, who served two terms from 2005 to 2013, is one of Iran’s most controversial political figures and gained notoriety for his belligerent stance towards the West, Israel and, eventually, Ayatollah Khamenei.

His re-election in 2009 for a second term triggered the biggest anti-regime protests since the 1979 revolution, and led to the deaths of scores of pro-democracy supporters. Mr Ahmadinejad is a populist who enjoys support among poorer Iranians, but his presidency was marred by widespread allegations of graft and restricting political freedoms.

In contrast, Mr Rouhani, who won the 2013 elections, has sought to improve relations with the West and oversaw a historic agreement with world powers last year to scale down Iran’s nuclear activities. In return, many western sanctions on the Islamic republic were lifted.

But hardliners argue that the nuclear agreement has failed to deliver any economic dividends for ordinary Iranians. Moderate forces counter that without the deal, Iran’s oil exports would be non-existent. They say the easing of sanctions has helped the currency stabilise and boosted economic growth.

“Under the circumstances, hardliners have no serious candidate who can win the election which leaves them with no choice but to attack Rouhani’s economic records,” said an official in the presidential office. “But we remain wary that hardliners may have a discrete plan to unveil their main candidate in the last minute.”

Analysts say Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s mayor, who city residents credit for implementing major development projects in the capital, is one potential candidate .

But a whistleblower recently alleged that senior managers and members of the city council were sold land in Tehran at massive discounts. Mr Qalibaf denied the charges.

Another possibility is Ezzatollah Zarghami, former head of the state broadcaster and a close ally of Mr Ahmadinejad. But Iranian analysts say he lacks charisma and had a poor record of managing the broadcasting company.

–(Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)