Is Ahmadinejad making a comeback?

First published by Al-Monitor

A three-story building in a quiet one-way alley in northern Tehran is the headquarters of an unlikely campaign that opposes both the administration of President Hassan Rouhani and many of the Islamic Republic’s establishment figures.

The Velenjak building is the base of activities for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has his offices on its third floor.

Ahmadinejad has been relatively quiet since the ascendance of the moderate Rouhani, but the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) is only one of many outlets that have reported on his desire to make a comeback.

According to Amir Mohebbian, a leading political analyst, Ahmadinejad’s attempt to return to power is obvious as he “quietly awaits favorable conditions and occasionally tests the waters.”

The provincial trips that the former hard-line president makes are one indication.

In addition to making many trips to southern and northern Iran, Ahmadinejad celebrated the end of Ramadan by visiting Taleqan with the family members of four celebrated Iran-Iraq war “martyrs” in a trip that, according to ILNA, was coordinated by the Quds Force, the formidable international arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

In April, Ahmadinejad ruled out a return to politics but many of his supporters beg to differ.

They are tirelessly organizing and insist on his return. These are an unlikely bunch. Their young cadre runs many blogs and social media accounts. They draw controversy by their occasionally unconventional mixing of Islamism with an anti-wealthy and anti-establishment discourse, and many have spent time in jail for their activities. Their targets are not only the Reformists but many of the traditional conservatives.

Take Ahmad Shariat, who heads the Internet committee of an Ahmadinejad organization. In his blog, he attacked the policy of backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called for a boycott of the last Majles elections in 2012 (because many Ahmadinejad forces were barred), attacked establishment religious figures such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and, finally, dared to criticize Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself (the latter, in early 2013, led to the closing of Shariat’s blog and his arrest).

These supporters leave no doubt as to their allegiance to the ex-president. One name they go by is “Homa,” a Persian acronym for “Supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” An online newspaper with the same name (Homa Daily) opened last week on the occasion of Ahmadinejad’s 58th birthday. (“Square 72” is another outlet, named after Ahmadinejad’s neighborhood in northeastern Tehran).

Abdolreza Davari — who was a vice-president of IRNA, the national news agency for the administration under Ahmadinejad — is a leading organizer of Homa. A controversial figure who was fired from a teaching post for “political activities,” Davari was reported by ILNA as one of the top three media campaigners attempting an Ahmadinejad comeback.

“As an Iranian, I hope for the return of Mr. Ahmadinejad to politics,” Davari told Al-Monitor, before adding that he thinks the ex-president is currently focused on “scientific” activities.

To my question about the regular meetings of Homa in the Velenjak building, Davari says that such meetings are not organized but that “all kinds of people, commentators, students or ordinary people come to meet and talk to Dr. Ahmadinejad.”

Davari also denies that Homa is attempting to organize for next year’s Majles elections. Ahmadinejad’s return to power needs no less than “changes in the current relation of forces,” Davari says, seeming to imply that many of the establishment figures wouldn’t want the ex-president back. Many such figures are especially opposed to Ahmadinejad’s entourage.

Enter Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, who was openly rebuked by Khamenei for his maverick mixing of Shiite millennialism, Persian nationalism and leftist language. Despite Khamenei’s personal rejection and the sustained attacks of many who accused Mashaei of leading a “deviationist current,” the ex-president has continued backing his close friend (whose daughter married Ahmadinejad’s eldest son) even after the Guardian Council rejected Mashaei’s candidacy in last year’s presidential elections.

Mashaei’s offices are on the second level of the Velenjak building, and he is known to take part in Homa meetings.

Homa Daily ran Mashaei’s picture in the first page of its first issue, while reprinting his most controversial interview, where he had defended the necessity of “friendship with the Israeli people” — an interview personally criticized and attacked by Khamenei.

Davari says Mashaei doesn’t want to return to politics due to his “cultural and spiritual sentiment.” Taking a note from Mashaei’s book, he says Ahmadinejad’s concept of the Islamic Revolution and his belief in the coming of the hidden Imam is not “meant for a specific geography or religion as the hidden Imam’s global message is aimed at all nations and groups.”

“Freedom-loving and justice-seeking fighters” like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Djamila Boupacha, Bobby Sands, Hassan Nasrallah and Hugo Chavez belong to the same global front as Ahmadinejad, Davari insists.

Acolytes of Mashaei seem to have especially targeted Iran’s nuclear negotiations. A group called the “the National Movement for Iran’s Independence” (NAMA, for its Persian acronym) was formed with the declared goal of fighting any compromise with the West. Its unusual name (not mentioning Islam) has the Mashaie imprint.

Mashaei’s presence has always driven away many of Ahmadinejad’s backers. One of them is Mohammadreza Etemadian, a trade adviser to the ex-president. Etemadian told Al-Monitor that he would like to see Ahmadinejad back, but he has always told him to keep Mashaei away since “he is not on good terms with the supreme leader and is a deviant.”

Etemadian is a leading member of the Islamic Coalition Party, the traditional organization of Bazari Islamists and an important part of the establishment. Its leaders seem to detest the populist excesses of Ahmadinejad.

Sensing this, the ever-adventurous Ahmadinejad has been trying to find new allies, even if among the Reformists. He met with Hassan Khomeini, the 40-year-old grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, known for his proximity to the Reformists. The ex-president boldly asked Khomeini to lead a group of young clerics to contest the next year’s election of the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the supreme leader.

He has also reportedly tried to meet the Reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami and Ambassador Sadeq Kharazi, an influential diplomat from a key political family.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Gholam-Hossein Elham, the spokesman of Ahmadinejad’s government, has started campaigning for the ex-president and last week met with the governors-generals of the previous government to organize. Elham, however, spoke with the pro-Ahmadinejad “Square 72” website to deny this news.

Unceremoniously bowing out after the disqualification of the candidate he supported in the 2013 presidential elections, Ahmadinejad seems to be busy plotting a comeback.

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