Is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really all that powerful? He certainly sees himself that way, not least because he has the backing of Iran's most influential man, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In reality, though, Ahmadinejad's view of himself is distorted. The only reason he has maintained his position since 2005 is because of Khamenei's support and, while detractors often bash his predecessor Mohammad Khatami for being weak and toothless, anything more than a cursory comparison of the two shows the reality is quite different.
When compared one politician to another, and looking at the support each built through their own merit and standing, it’s clear that Khatami was in fact a stronger president than Ahmadinejad. After all, Khatami wasn’t there because of Khamenei's support—in fact he was there despite the relative lack of it—and managed to stay in power for eight years even though Khamenei made his life as difficult as possible.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Indeed, despite the tensions, Khatami still managed to convince Khamenei to agree to a decision as sensitive and difficult as suspending the country’s uranium enrichment programme. In contrast, it seems highly unlikely that Ahmadinejad would have the standing to convince Khamenei to change his mind on an issue anything like as important as the country’s nuclear programme.
Yet confidence is a reflection of how you see yourself, and based on that—no matter what others think of him—Ahmadinejad acts as if he wields genuine power. It’s this perception of himself that has presumably prompted him to embark on a mission that many would see as far too ambitious for a leader of his standing: grooming his successor.
The decision as to who will be Iran's next president is, of course, ultimately up to Khamenei. But this doesn’t seem to be preventing Ahmadinejad from having a go at choosing him. And who does he have his eye on to succeed him? His first choice seems to be his former first vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai.
The two have a long history together. According to opposition sources, they first met in 1982, when a young Ahmadinejad was governor of the city of Khoy in West Azerbaijan Province. Around the same time, Mashai was appointed part of the team responsible for the security of the neighboring Kurdistan region by Iran's Intelligence Ministry.
The two became good friends, and when Ahmadinejad was appointed governor in Ardebil Province, he made Mashai a part of his team, along with Sadegh Mahsooli (currently Minister of Welfare and Social Security) and Mojtaba Samare Hashemi (a senior adviser). Today, they are known as members of Ahmadinejad's ‘Ardebil circle.’ To top it off, Mashai became family three years ago when the president's son married Mashai's daughter, and both are also believed to be followers of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and his messianic teachings.
Ahmadinejad hasn’t openly declared that he wants Mashai to replace him. But there’s plenty of tantalizing circumstantial evidence to suggest he does—something that hasn’t gone unnoticed in Iran.
In an article published on July 14, Raja News—a pro-Ahmadinejad website—accused Mashai of embarking on early electioneering. The editors of the article noted, for example, that Mashai had spoken on behalf of the president at conferences, on foreign trips and at provincial committee meetings.