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.
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.
Adding weight to the view that Mashai is, indeed, the ‘chosen one,’ there’s the fact that he’s also been appointed by Ahmadinejad to 17 different government positions since he was forced to step down as first vice president after just a week in office last July (allegedly under pressure from Khamenei after making favorable comments about Israelis).
Mashai's latest appointment, as Ahmadinejad's Middle East envoy, has only reinforced Raja News' suspicions. With the US leaving Iraq, and the situation in Lebanon becoming more delicate as a result of the tribunal over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Mashai's new post will boost his standing both at home and abroad—especially with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp and its Qods force, something likely to serve him well politically in the future.
That’s not all. The appointment of Hamid Baghaei—one of Mashai’s inner circle—as Ahmadinejad's Asia envoy is another suggestion of Ahmadinejad’s intent. Mashai met Baghaei when both worked at Radio Tehran (Baghaei was in charge of the station’s website back then). Baghaei was generally regarded at the time as too incompetent and inexperienced for the post, and was rumoured to only have been appointed thanks to Mashai's help
Baghaei also followed Mashai to Tehran’s municipal arts and culture organization and then to the cultural heritage and tourism office, much to the ire of publications such as Tabnak, which believed that Baghaei wasn’t qualified for such a post.
And controversy has dogged Baghaei in his new position of Asia envoy, after he described the World War I massacre of Armenians by Turks as genocide. This description left many Iranian officials red-faced in front of their Turkish allies. Mashai, however, seems unfazed, and the fact that he’s now bringing his own people to Ahmadinejad's team, where they are being given influential positions, reinforces the suggestion that the president is helping Mashai to form his own circles of power.
So what would a Mashai presidency have in store for Iran and the region? On that, there’s frustratingly little to go on—Mashai hassaid precious little in public on domestic issues, including on the key subject of the economy.
And, of course, whether Khamenei is anyway going to allow Mashai to replace Ahmadinejad is another matter. For now, the hostility shown to Mashai by the clergy and many members of the conservative movement suggests it’s a difficult path ahead. But three years is a long time, and if Ahmadinejad manages to endear Mashai to Khamenei and at least some of the conservatives, then he has a fighting chance of getting his way.
If that happens, it would serve Ahmadinejad’s interests too. After all, Ahmadinejad almost certainly wouldn’t be doing this out of affection for Mashai alone—by getting him elected it would enable Ahmadinejad to maintain his influence after leaving office. And who knows—maybe Mashai would return the favor by helping Ahmadinejad get re-elected after he has completed his four year term.