February 15, 2021
Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is never long out of the headlines, or out of the public eye.
He is famous for regularly addressing world leaders, treating them to his opinions, outrage and promises. In the last week alone, Ahmadinejad has written to the presidents of the United States, Russia and Iran.
Although these letters appear to have separate themes and aims, they all seem to have been written with Iran’s 2021 presidential election in mind. When writing to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had harsh criticism for the restrictions placed on his supporters, who have recently gathered in crowds near his home.
What Happened When Ahmadinejad Supporters Held a Rally?
About 10 days before the anniversary of the Islamic revolution, which takes place on February 10, Ahmadinejad’s supporters urged people to take part in a rally on the day, disseminating their calls widely on social media. The calls primarily went out on the Dolat Bahar and Mehr Farda channels on Telegram, and on Instagram and Twitter. Ahmadinejad fans were asked to gather at 72 Narmak Square, near the former president’s house.
According to images released of the rally, there was a huge police presence, and officers appeared to outnumber demonstrators, which were thought to total around two or three hundred people. The group was forced to rally a little further down the square, outside number 71.
Demonstrators chanted several slogans during the rally, including: “Poverty, corruption and discrimination, Ahmadinejad will rise”, “Full partnership with Ahmadinejad”, “Ahmadinejad’s presence is a national demand” and “Iran calls you.”
Photographs also show that Ahmadinejad supporters set fire to an Israeli flag.
The rally ended an hour after it began at the request of Amir Ahmadinejad, the former president’s brother.
What did Ahmadinejad’s Letter Say?
Ahmadinejad’s 673-word letter to Rouhani describes the call to rally as “spontaneous and without my consent,” adding: “Since the morning of the 22nd of Bahman [February 10, the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution], a large number of officers, with the help of plainclothes agents, surrounded the entire area of 72 Narmak Square and blocked the way so people couldn’t cross. By threatening, intimidating, and sometimes beating them, they prevented or dispersed innocent people who, out of love for the ideals of the revolution, were trying to attend the rally. The clashes were so severe that some veterans trapped behind the erected obstacles had difficulty breathing.”
Ahmadinejad wrote in his letter that the day before, security agents contacted the organizers of the rally “from the headquarters in the Ministry of Interior…threatening to confront them and seriously warning them not to attend the ceremony.”
Two Key Points in Ahmadinejad’s Letter
In his criticizing the disruption of his supporters’ rally, the former president of Iran highlighted two points: the crackdown on protesters in November 2019 and the president’s role and responsibility for the suppression.
According to various news sources including Reuters, the November 2019 massacre left 1,500 people dead, and more died after being handed down death sentences; many more suffered after being given heavy prison sentences. Islamic Republic officials have downplayed the massacre and dismiss what many in the international community view as a severe violation of people’s rights. Ahmadinejad has also tended not to embrace this version of events, so the fact that he is now referring to them has been met with consternation.
In one part of his letter, Ahmadinejad wrote: “If the same seriousness applied to accusing and repressing the people at various times, including November 2019, and in attempts to justify wrongdoings, was used in wise planning and better and more popular management of the country and solving problems, would we face such a situation, in which the officials do not dare to present themselves to or join people’s gatherings?”
Ahmadinejad has repeatedly criticized Hassan Rouhani for not engaging with people or joining them in public gatherings, and added that he had nothing to worry about: “at most, two people would swear at him,” he posted on Twitter.
In his letter, Ahmadinejad also raised the issue of the president’s responsibility to the people: “If these actions were not in accordance with your order and opinion, or if you oppose these actions, people expect you to deal decisively with the perpetrators of the incident and inform the public.” He said that if repression had not been ordered by the president, he should stand firm against it. Ahmadinejad also referred to the “importance” and “necessity” of freedom being enshrined in society.
What stands out about Ahmadinejad’s statements is the fact that, during his eight years in office, heavy restrictions and repressive measures were imposed on civil movements, including the student movement, women’s rights activists and religious minorities, and included the killing of protesters following the 2009 presidential election.
Ahmadinejad’s letter to Rouhani was actually his second in recent weeks. In a letter to Rouhani on December 30, he wrote that war was imminent and that he had to do something to stop it.
Some analysts and political observers, including journalist and political activist Abbas Abdi, have highlighted this particular part of Ahmadinejad’s letter — and immediately, this analysis met with reaction from Ahmadinejad’s son.
Why Did he Write it?
At the beginning of February, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also wrote a detailed letter to United States President Joe Biden.
A day before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, and just as the news of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf’s failed attempt to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin broke, Ahmadinejad wrote to Putin too.
In addition to these letters, he has also given a large number of interviews to the press in recent months, unsurprisingly making the headlines every time.
This more prominent presence in the media indicates that he likely intends to run for the 2021 presidential election, and the slogans his supporters shouted out on February 10 were an invitation for him to run as a candidate.
Iran’s thirteenth presidential election is scheduled to be held on June 18, 2021.
Will Ahmadinejad Make a Comeback?
Ahmadinejad has longed to return to power, or to at least be part of the main circle of power, since August 3, 2013, when he handed over the presidential residence in Pasteur Square, and the presidency, to Hassan Rouhani.
Over the years, he has worked hard to not only keep up but expand his political network, and to galvanize his supporters to join him in this ongoing effort.
But there has been constant pressure on the people who make up his entourage, eventually leading to the arrest of some of his closest allies, including Esfandiar Rahim Mashai and Hamid Baghaei. But these obstacles have served to motivate him, and he has worked even harder to pursue his aims.
In one of the strangest political incidents to have taken place in Iran’s recent history, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, without naming Ahmadinejad, said a few months before the 12th presidential election in 2017 that he “did not consider it appropriate” for him to run for president. A day later, Ahmadinejad wrote to Khamenei, saying that he would bow to his order and not run. However, on April 12, 2017, he went to the Interior Ministry and registered to run in the elections anyway, though the Guardian Council rejected his bid and banned him from pursuing his candidacy.
Today, the political fabric of the Islamic Republic is not complete without the figure of Ahmadinejad and his allies. Some members of parliament continue to like and support him, and the more radical factions in the Islamic Republic have certainly not completely forgotten him.
In the meantime, the country’s most influential group of people, the Revolutionary Guards, crave a figure like Ahmadinejad to step into the fore, although the Guards Corps is apparently opposed to his return.
One journalist with strong pro-Islamic Republic alliances tweeted that the recent rally of Ahmadinejad supporters and his letter to Rouhani signaled “the beginning of him leading street riots” because “he wants to take his supporters to the streets in the coming crises and be the sole leader of the riots.”
However, another commentator and researcher who aligns himself with more oppositional, anti-regime politics tweeted that Iranian reformists’ surprise at Ahmadinejad’s desire to return was bizarre. “Mir Hossein Mousavi, who did not have a good reputation at the end of his time as [the country’s last] prime minister in 1989, appeared as a savior in the 2009 elections. Rafsanjani was hated at the end of his presidency in 1997, but in 2005 and 2015, he came to the elections as a savior.” It follows, he said, that, since Ahmadinejad was hated in 2013, he will be in a good position to run again in the 2021 elections.