Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have narrowly survived a helicopter crash today, but his political career may have already gone up in flames.
Ahmadinejad had long anticipated the coming conclusion of his role as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as candidates can only serve two consecutive terms in the office of the president. Elections for his replacement occur later this month on June 14.
However, the growing public schism between him and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has placed Ahmadinejad’s future political aspirations at stake.
Ahmadinejad had planned to designate his designate his former chief of staff and longtime confidante, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as his political successor. However, the Guardian Council, half of whose members are appointed directly by Khamenei, recently formally rejected Mashaei’s candidacy for presidency.
Mashaei is at the center of an ideological rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. He has advocated an Iranian nationalism that de-emphasizes the role of the Islamic clerics. Mashaei’s stance clearly threatens the future influence of Khamenei were he permitted to ascend to higher office.
Ahmadinejad has seen his political influence diminish with the revelation of the rift between himself and Khamenei. His political supporters were roundly trounced in the March 2012 parliamentary elections in favor of Khameinei loyalists.
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s public disagreements made headlines in spring 2011, when Khamenei reinstated an intelligence minister fired by Ahmadinejad. The fight led the president to withdraw from the public eye for over a week before resolving the conflict in deference to Khamenei’s wishes.
Despite the power of individual presidents to exert pressure on Iran’s political system, the Supreme Leader has the ultimate veto. Historical rifts between the Iranian president and the Supreme Leader have generally favored the latter, leaving the former replaceable.
Indeed, the Guardian Council even rejected the presidential candidacy of popular former president and revolutionary Ali Rafsanjani.
The rejection of Rafsanjani and other reformist candidates from the ballot has indicated to many that Iran’s government intends to restrict political participation to those loyal to the Supreme Leader.
However, the personal and public feud with Ahmadinejad may also indicate weakness in the regime. Fearful of losing public support for governmental mismanagement, the clerics may be using Ahmadinejad as a scapegoat.
Iran expert and Stanford University professor Abbas Milani has previously suggested that Khamenei’s public denouncement of Ahmadinejad was in an attempt to "offer up Ahmadinejad as a sacrifice and blame him for the country’s impending financial woes."
At this point, Ahmadinejad has very little hope of remaining influential beyond the June 2013 presidential elections without a significant shift in his political fortunes.
Ahmadinejad’s best bet may be to throw his weight behind Khamenei favorite and apparent front-runner Saeed Jalili. Arah Karami of Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse suspects that Ahmadinejad may be planning to do just this, noting that Jalili has picked up a number of former aides to Ahmadinejad and that they share a relatively similar ideological perspective. Such a move may not entirely rehabilitate Ahmadinejad’s political image but it may preserve his ability to influence Iranian politics after June 14.