As the Iranian presidential elections approach, Ayatollah and leader of the grand council Ali Khamenei has refused the candidacy of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad backed candidate, and his Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei
The rejection of Mashaei's bid for presidency is another incident in the bitter rivalry between the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. The president's reign was mostly incident free, with the supreme leader lending him a hand of support in the last elections. This time, Khamenei seems determined to stifle any attempt by the incumbent to gain influence within the next government; a reflection of the tensions between the two leaders that surfaced over the last few years.
In 2005, when Ahmadinejad was first elected, he had the full support of Khamenei, who sought to find a candidate that he would be able to manipulate to his demands. He was not willing to reenact an earlier debacle back in 2001 when former president Mohammed Khatami was elected with a huge majority against the "official" candidate; someone who received public support from Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad, a largely unknown personality at the time, had followed Khamenei's cue for most of his first term. However differences started to surface when the president had started to replace many in the bureaucratic household with those loyal to him. One of his first moves was to replace Ali Larijani, the chief negotiator on behalf of the country's nuclear program. This had been done without prior permission or consent from the supreme leader which had irked Khamenei to a certain extent. He also fired the interior minister Mostafa Pour Mohammadi who had never been a natural ally of the president. He was replaced my Mehdi Hashemi, a surprise pick considering the position was always held by a cleric. During his first three years in power, Ahmadinejad had made 9 cabinet changes, replacing each one with an ally of his.
While this did not sit well with the clerical establishment, the support for Ahmadinejad continued, especially in the aftermath of the 2009 elections. The Green movement, led by Hossein Mousavi, had posed a direct challenge to the supremacy of the Ayatollah, who in return supported the current president in his bid for the second term, albeit charges of massive rigging in the elections which led to street demonstrations killing more than a dozen protestors and imprisoning hundreds.
However, by this point, Khameini was aware that the president was an ambitious nationalist who had turned out to be a thorn in his back rather than an obedient protégé who would tread according to his wishes.
Tensions between the Ahmadinejad and Khamenei erupted when the former fired the intelligence minister Heyder Moslehi in 2011. The supremely publically denounced the move backed by the clerical establishment who forced Ahmadinejad's hand to reinstate Moslehi, or face the prospect of being fired.
The Supreme Council has also has a great level of disdain for the president's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. He is known to be a nationalist hardliner, who is not only a close ally but also the father in law of the fiery Ahmadinejad. This turned out to be highly unpopular choice as the Khameini once again ordered the president to ask for Mashaei resignation.
Allies of the Supreme Leader (including himself) found Mashaei to be an irresponsible character, whose statements have undermined the Islamic republic, have accused Mashaie. In a highly controversial statement, Mashaei said in 2008, "today, Iran is a friend of the nations of United States and Israel. No nation in the world is our enemy. This is an honor." Nearly 200 parliamentarians released a statement condemning the remark, which Mashaei again reiterated several weeks after. Only when Khamenei publicly rebuked Mashaei did the controversy end.
Leading up to the elections in June, Ahmadinejad has been strongly supportive of Mashaei's bid to succeed him. While the two maintain a solid personal relationship, Meshaei's succession to the presidential palace would also mean continued influence in Iranian affairs for the outgoing Ahmadinejad, and protection from the his foes, who have threatened him in the past to physically harm him. Unfortunately for Mashaei, his actions and that of his boss have shattered his hopes of assuming the top civilian office in the country.
The exclusion of Mashaei does not come as a surprise. Being a close aide to the current president was always going to hurt his chances. The public tussles of the past between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad has dented his chances to become president, and the presidents appeal to reverse the decision is likely to fall on deaf ears.
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