By Reza HaghighatNejad
December 1, 2017
The hardliner politician Alireza Zakani is fond of telling people what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once said to him. According to Zakani, the former president had said that key political figure Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (also a former president) was a piece of bone stuck in the throat of the revolution that now needed to be pulled out. But today, is it Ahmadinejad himself who has become that piece of bone, stuck in the throat of Ayatollah Khamenei and his hardliner supporters?
Rafsanjani is gone. But Ahmadinejad is alive, restless, and has proven to be a more complicated case than Rafsanjani ever was.
So what is the Supreme Leader doing about Ahmadinejad, who has become a nuisance at the least, and even in some circumstances a liability? Are there any lessons from history that might provide clues as to what the Supreme Leader might do next?
1. The Bully Pulpit
The Supreme Leader really began exerting his might against Ahmadinejad in April 2009, at the end of the president’s first term and after fairly good relations had defined their relationship up to that point. When Ahmadinejad’s government took steps to separate the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Khamenei told him to reverse the decision, spurred on by objections from Mohammad Reyshahri, the first Islamic Republic Minister of Intelligence and who currently serves as Khamenei’s representative for Hajj affairs. Ahmadinejad disregarded both of the Supreme Leader’s private letters to him, thereby forcing Khamenei to go public. The Supreme Leader’s opposition was then impossible for him to deny or ignore, so Ahmadinejad was forced to back down.
During the televised debate between Ahmadinejad and the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi on June 3, 2009, Ahmadinejad unexpectedly and explicitly attacked not only his direct rival but also other important figures in the Islamic Republic, including Rafsanjani and Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, the former speaker of the parliament, accusing them both of corruption. Again, Khamenei was not pleased. In his Friday Prayers sermon, he defended Rafsanjani and Nouri, and said that he had warned Ahmadinejad that his attacks weren’t welcome. He added that he fully expected the president to heed his warning.
In summer 2009, Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who was unpopular with the ruling clergy because of his nationalistic and unorthodox religious views, as his first vice president. In doing so, he went against the wishes of the Supreme Leader. Again, Ahmadinejad chose to disregard private warnings from Khamenei, forcing the Supreme Leader to publicly veto the appointment.
In April 2011, Ahmadinejad called for the resignation of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi as part of his plan to gain control over one of the most jealously-guarded positions in the Islamic Republic. It was another example of Ahmadinejad ignoring Khamenei’s warnings, again resulting in the Supreme Leader going public. On April 17, Khamenei publicly refused to accept Moslehi’s forced resignation. Ahmadinejad responded by confining himself for to his home for 11 days and refusing to attend cabinet sessions or any other public meetings or religious ceremonies. In exchange for his public show of displeasure with the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad met with condemnation from across the conservative political spectrum, calls from some parliamentarians for his impeachment and Friday Prayers’ diatribes from Ahmad Jannati that severed the last vestiges of friendship between the two.
In the last months of his presidency, on February 3, 2013, Ahmadinejad presented a video before the Iranian parliament that appeared to show Fazel Larijani, one of the Larijani brothers, procuring bribes. Khamenei advised Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani to remain silent on the matter, but a few days later, the Supreme Leader himself strongly and publicly condemned Ahmadinejad’s action, calling it “illegal and against sharia” — a condemnation that angered Ahmadinejad’s supporters.
More recently, on August 30, 2016, when Khamenei found out that the former president was persisting in running for the presidency against his private advice, he explicitly forbade Ahmadinejad from running. Ahmadinejad again ignored him, and Khamenei stopped talking about it, but the message had got through: The Guardian Council promptly disqualified Ahmadinejad from running.
So the Supreme Leader, when he has found it necessary, has used his bully pulpit to put Ahmadinejad in his place. But how has Ahmadinejad reacted to this approach in the past?
In the case of the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, he kept his silence and acquiesced. When it came to his attacks on Hashemi Rafsanjani and Nategh Nouri, he disregarded Khamenei. In the matter of Mashaei, Ahmadinejad had hoped to negotiate with Khamenei but Mashaei resigned before he could do so. When Khamenei reinstated Moslehi, there was the great Ahmadinejad tantrum — his defiant decision to confine himself to his home. However, he returned to work when he found out that the parliament was seriously considering impeaching him if he did not. In the case of the Larijani brothers, he paid no attention to the Supreme Leader and, as recently as a week ago, has continued his mudslinging against the family. When it came to his second bid for the presidency, again, he ignored what Khamenei said until he was disqualified.
2. Let it be Done in Silence
In 2011, Abdolnabi Namazi, the Friday Prayers Leader for Kashan, disclosed that Khamenei had told the commander of the Revolutionary Guards not to arrest Ahmadinejad’s ally and choice for first vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, but to instead get rid of the “operatives” of his “deviant” movement [Persian link]. It was apparently an unauthorized slip of the tongue, one that Khamenei’s office denied. But the disclosure indicated that the Supreme Leader had adopted a second tactic when dealing with Ahmadinejad: Don’t talk about it. Just watch.
Since then, many people in Ahmadinejad’s circle have been arrested, disqualified and pushed to the sidelines, including his deputy foreign minister Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, his vice president Hamid Baghaei, his press advisor Ali Akbar Javanfekr, his first vice president Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, Mashaei’s confidant, the cleric Bahman Sharifzadeh, his advisor Abdolreza Davari and his cabinet secretary Masoud Zaribafan. And the list of marginalized figures goes on, extending to low-level managers and pro-Ahmadinejad journalists. Authorities have opened cases against several of them, and against Ahmadinejad too.
Khamenei has again mostly been silent during these developments, although he did intervene to save Malekzadeh from prison by giving him a pardon “for reasons of state,” and to rescue former vice president Baghaei from solitary confinement. But altogether, the tactic of silence has gone a long way toward cutting down Ahmadinejad’s sphere of influence, not least because it signals his approval of such a reduction in power.
From the very beginning, however, Ahmadinejad’s own response to this tactic of silence has been noisy and rambunctious. He has criticized and attacked the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence unit, wrote letters to Khamenei, met with Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the chairman of the Expediency Council, and with the Supreme Leader himself. When the letters and the meetings proved futile, he turned his attention to the Iranian public — writing letters, disclosing evidence and encouraging his partners to seek sanctuary in holy shrines.
3. Kid Gloves
Throughout the years, the Supreme Leader has often treated Ahmadinejad with kid gloves. He appointed Ahmadinejad to the Expediency Council immediately after the end of his second term in August 2013, he reappointed him to the council in 2017, and he regularly invites him to meetings and ceremonies at his office. He occasionally voices support for some of the policies from the Ahmadinejad government, and it’s probably the Supreme Leader’s intervention that has led to the judiciary stopping short of pursuing open cases against the former president to the bitter end.
This all suggests that Khamenei might still have some lingering affection for Ahmadinejad. In any case, Khamenei appears to be unwilling to let the split between the two become public and irreversible.
But there is something else that has an impact on the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad relationship. The credibility of Khamenei’s himself is in some danger. Fourteen years ago, he saw a good sycophant in Ahmadinejad when he was Tehran’s mayor, and so arranged for his political ascendance. That is why, according to former Judiciary Chief Mohammad Yazdi, he tolerated the last two years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. He had no other choice.
And there is one other important consideration. During the Ahmadinejad years, there was always a clear line between the president and the ballot box. And Ahmadinejad supporters have tended to remain loyal. “The social base of individuals is very important for the Supreme Leader,” wrote a principlist commentator on November 25 [Persian link]. “Many of his supporters still see Ahmadinejad as their savior angel. He cannot be removed from the scene overnight and by a political decree…[The people] need time to see him as he really is. [As time goes by] he will be n better know and he will be removed. This cannot happen by physical force.”
In fact, Khamenei used a similar approach toward Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two reformist candidates who ran for president in Iran’s 2009 presidential election. Supporters of Khamenei have said many times that he did not want to put Mousavi and Karroubi on trial because he believes they must be tried and condemned by the people. In other words, once they lose their political base, they will disappear all on their own.
Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad’s behavior will be unlikely to foster success with this approach. His recent all-out attacks on the Larijani brothers are aimed precisely at preventing himself from being driven out. He does not want Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani to become president or Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. With his occasional disclosures about the judiciary, one of the most opaque institutions in the Islamic Republic, he wants to keep his bonds with his core supporters so that he will not be driven out into the wilderness.
In the meantime, there are some figures who love witnessing the war between Ahmadinejad and the Larijani brothers, and want it to continue — because no matter who wins or loses, they will benefit. And this fight benefits Khamenei as well, because he does not want the fight to turn into a Khamenei-Ahmadinejad confrontation, which could be the result if he resorts to his bully pulpit tactic.
But with Ahmadinejad’s tantrums and his obstinacy, this approach might not work. It may reach a point where the only option left for Khamenei will be to put Ahmadinejad under house arrest, as he did with Mousavi and Karroubi. The environment of duplicity, demagoguery and corruption that has grown under the leadership of Khamenei does not leave him many choices.