As is the norm for most authoritarian regimes, fortunes rise and fall quickly for men of power in Iran. But the former chief of staff and vice president of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had it coming for a long time.
As the closest confidante of the former president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei has long been despised by much of the Iranian ruling elite for leading a supposed “deviant current,” and advocating a strange mix of ascetic mysticism, Iranian nationalism, Shia millenarianism, and anti-establishment sentiment.
After years of controversy, Mashaei was finally arrested last March. He was charged with “collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the regime,” and “insulting judicial authorities.” Along with his patron, the ex-president, Mashaei had spent much of the last few months agitating against the judiciary, especially after it targeted Hamid Baghaei, Ahmadinejad’s number three: his former vice president and a disqualified candidate during the 2017 presidential elections. Earlier this year, Baghaei ended up being sentenced to fifteen years in prison and fined for embezzlement.
Mashaei’s own trial came to an end on September 2 without access to a lawyer. On Wednesday, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. The trial was closed to much of the media but a few select outlets.
The little footage that has been published shows Mashaei refusing to recognize the court or offer any defense, though details of the trial are still unclear. One video released by state media with no sound shows Mashaei taking off his shirt and throwing it aside. Another video shows the judge asking Mashaei to explain his links to British and Israeli spy agencies. Mashaei is then asked about his relations with high-profile figures—also accused of espionage—ranging from former the Tehran correspondent for the Washington Post to the former British ambassador. Throughout the video, Mashaei ignores the judge.
The root cause of the problems for Ahmadinejad’s inner circle date back to the 2009 post-election protests known as the Green Movement. The June 2009 presidential election declared incumbent President Ahmadinejad a winner, while reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi called it a sham election, which then led to mass demonstrations.
In an unprecedented move, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei staked his political capital on Ahmadinejad by publicly declaring that his thinking was closer to him as opposed to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—a founding figure of the Islamic Republic and former president—who was rumored to be corrupt, and an endorser of Mousavi. Rafsanjani was also a prime target of Ahmadinejad’s populist attacks.
Despite Khamenei’s backing, a month later, Ahmadinejad openly defied the Supreme Leader by refusing to rescind the appointment of Mashaei as vice president. Even when the office of the Supreme Leader publicly published his written order asking Ahmadinejad to dismiss Mashaei, the president waited for a couple of days for Mashaei to resign himself. Instead of being shunned, Mashaei was subsequently appointed as chief of staff while also holding on to numerous positions, ranging from special presidential adviser on Middle Eastern affairs to secretariat of the Non-Aligned Movement. Ahmadinejad then went on to dismiss his intelligence minister, who insisted on Mashaei’s dismissal as well.
Throughout his second term and even until today, Ahmadinejad has continued to rebuke the Supreme Leader and keep his steadfast support of Mashaei.
Years after Ahmadinejad’s public clash with Khamenei, many hardliners were happy to throw their support behind the former president—if he only got rid of Mashaei. But instead, Ahmadinejad has decided to play a daring game of politicking.
The ex-president has refused to ally himself with major figures of the Iranian establishment. Instead, Ahmadinejad has fully backed his inner circle, who have only held junior administrative or military positions prior to his time in office and are mostly under the age of forty. They’ve gone on to establish hundreds of websites and social media accounts, spewing a bewildering range of conspiracy theories and millenarian fantasies. These individuals known as Ahmadinejadis, supporters of Ahmadinejad, occupy a place on the margin of Iranian politics while maintaining hope that the president’s populist appeal could win him a comeback.
Mashaei, who is now portrayed as a martyr by Ahmadinejadis is seen as critical to this effort. His eclectic mix of ideas means that he can appeal to unlikely crowds. Mashaei had declared the age of “Islamism” to be over and the need for adopting an “Iranian Ideology” instead. He once mused about “friendship with the Israeli people.” Aware of the high patriotic sentiments in Iranian society, Mashaei also defends figures such as the ancient Persian King Cyrus the Great, and Hossein Fatemi, the foreign minister under the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh who was executed after the CIA-organized coup of 1953. In fact, one of the supposed British spies that Mashaei is accused of having relations with is Fatemi’s widow.
Ahmadinejadis seem keen on continuing their campaign against their opponents in the establishment, especially the Judiciary, whose head Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani is appointed by the Supreme Leader. Larijani belongs to a powerful and conservative Qom family that is in a shaky alliance with President Hassan Rouhani. Sadeq’s brother, Ali, is the current speaker of the parliament. In the final years of his presidency, Ahmadinejad caused a ruckus by broadcasting an audio file in a parliamentary session presided over by Larijani, that appeared to be evidence of the Larijanis’ corruption.
Wanting to capitalize on the economic protests that has engulfed the country since December 2017, Ahmadinejad has called on President Rouhani to resign, along with the heads of the legislative and judiciary branches—the Larijani brothers. Similarly, when Baghaei’s sentence was announced in March, Mashaei joined a small demonstration in front of the British Embassy in Tehran and publicly burned the sentencing paper while a dozen people chanted, “We don’t want a British-led judiciary!” Mashaei claimed that Baghaei’s sentence had been the work of the British foreign secretary.
This might seem laughable, but conspiracy theories about the British covertly manipulating Iranian politics has long fanned the imagination of many Iranians, dating back long before the 1979 revolution.
Another center of power targeted by Ahmadinejadis is the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, headed by the notorious Hossein Taeb, who is behind the arrests. Not all is clear in the shadowy world of IRGC, but in his trial, Baghaei claimed that Ahmadnejadis were victims of the paramilitary’s internal skirmishes.
In a pre-recorded video published when he went on trial this month, Mashaei warned against the plots concocted against himself and Ahmadinejad by “the higher-ups,” and the “men in power,” mentioning the IRGC’s intelligence arm by name. Ahmadinejad then published a video on social media backing Mashaei and decrying the obvious injustice of the “show trial” in which the judge “acted as an interrogator.”
After the sentence against Mashaei came out on September 12, the ex-president said he would write to the Supreme Leader to explain “the illegal and oppressive acts of the judiciary.” Ironically, Ahmadinejad didn’t seem bothered by the post-2009 Stalinesque show trials of top reformist figures that buttressed his own government.
Whether Ahmadinejad and Mashaei will remain fringe figures, the butt of jokes, or if their tactics will enable the growth of their base is anybody’s guess. In choosing “The deviant current,” populism, and social media over official channels and elite politics, the Ahmadinejadis are playing a daring game.
Arash Azizi is a New York-based writer and academic. He previously co-hosted a program on London-based Manoto TV, which was one of the most watched news shows in Iran, and was a former international editor of Kargozaran, an Iranian daily. He is currently a doctoral student at New York University, where he researches the history of the Middle East during the Cold War. Follow him on Twitter: @arash_tehran.