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Tags: iran | election | ahmadinejad

Ahmadinejad Protégé Poses Challenge to Iran's Leader

Sunday, 12 May 2013 07:25 AM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates  — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nationalist protégé Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie is one of the most divisive men in Iran, and if he is allowed to stand in June's presidential election, it would be a direct challenge to the authority of the supreme leader.

Mashaie brought to an end years of speculation on Saturday by registering as a candidate in an election that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hopes will usher in a period of much needed calm and unity.

But Mashaie's candidacy has the potential to tear apart the already strained political divisions between non-clerical populists, like him and Ahmadinejad, and loyal lieutenants of the Islamic theocracy, just four years after Iran was rocked by widespread protests over Ahmadinejad disputed re-election.

"Unlike the first generation of revolutionary elite who played by the rules, the Ahmadinejad group has consistently pushed against regime red lines and at times even challenged the authority of the supreme leader," said U.S.-based expert on Iran's electoral system, Yasmin Alem.

"For them, ambition trumps allegiance to the regime's principles."

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also  threw himself into Iran's election race on Saturday as a flurry of heavyweight candidates rushed to beat the registration deadline in the most unpredictable contest for decades.

Iranian media reported that Rafsanjani — a relative moderate — had registered for the June 14 presidential election. His candidacy radically alters what was previously seen as a contest between rival conservative groups.
The former president could scupper the hopes of "principlists", those loyal to Khamenei, who are aiming to secure a quick and painless transition and paper over the deep fissures between the opposing camps.
Rafsanjani, 78, who was president from 1989 to 1997, is expected to draw some support from reformists because he backed the opposition movement whose protests were crushed after the last, disputed election in 2009.

As Iran's supreme leader, Khamenei is supposed to be above the fray of every day politics, but personally intervened in 2009 to stop Ahmadinejad making Mashaie his first vice president.

Ahmadinejad was not completely cowed though and instead made Mashaie his chief-of-staff. For Mashaie to now run for president after Khamenei has shown his disapproval is an affront to the leader's authority, a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic.

"Allowing Mashaie to run for office would undermine the credibility of Iran's supreme leader," Alem said. "I think both Ahmadinejad and Mashaie are sly enough to know this."

The Ahmadinejad camp has also tested the nerves of principlists with their slogan of "long live Spring," which many have read as a coded call for political change.

But like all candidates, Mashaie first has to get through the vetting process by the Guardian Council — a group of 12 clerics and jurists responsible for overseeing the election.

"If Mashaie is barred, it might prompt Ahmadinejad to take action that would be destabilizing," said Mohammad Shabani, an Iranian analyst based in London. "Regardless of whether Mashaie is approved as a candidate, his candidacy is bound to be fateful."

For the past eight years, Ahmadinejad and Mashaie, who was previously head of Iran's cultural heritage organization, have fine-tuned a strongly nationalist doctrine that analysts say is increasingly popular among young and secular groups and those tired of their leaders' incessant Islamic rhetoric.

Iranians are deeply proud of their pre-Islamic traditions and heritage and the two have strived to harness such symbols.

Perhaps the most blatant example of the new doctrine was the loan by the British Museum to Tehran of the Cyrus Cylinder, a pre-Islamic, 2,600 year old clay antiquity that scholars regard as the "first bill of human rights".

Ahmadinejad attended the cylinder's Tehran unveiling in 2010, a move that would have been inconceivable for previous presidents. But Mashaie's central role in the affair stands out.

"Mr Mashaie began talking about Cyrus as a forerunner of the prophet (Mohammad), as also embodying values that can be part of an Islamic tradition," Macgregor said in the interview.

Linking the prophet with a pre-Islamic imperialist Persian monarch does nothing but stoke further fears among the Islamic Republic's old guard about Mashaie's intentions.

While loyalists lose sleep over a possible Mashaie presidency, others are not sure the 52-year-old can win.

"I don't see a Mashaie presidency at this stage," said a Western diplomat based in Tehran. "He's a dark horse but my best guess is he'll be barred from contention."


© 2022 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nationalist protégé Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie is one of the most divisive men in Iran, and if he is allowed to stand in June's presidential election, it would be a direct challenge to the authority of the supreme leader.
Sunday, 12 May 2013 07:25 AM
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