The news shocked Iran: controversial former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad registered to run again for president in the May 19 election. In front of tens of reporters, he visited the Interior Ministry on April 12 and filed the necessary documents. 

Last September, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a public statement clearly referring to Ahmadinejad, said, “I did not tell him not to participate [in the election]. I said, ‘I do not find it expedient for you and the country to participate.’” In response, Ahmadinejad delivered a speech and said, “Sir (Agha in Farsi) told me that it is not expedient [to run for president]. I said okay. It didn’t take even one second.” He also issued a letter addressing the leader in which he clearly declared that he would not participate in the presidential election. 

After registering, however, Ahmadinejad told the reporters, “Some say that what the leader said was a clear prohibition.“ According to the Shi’ite tradition, a follower of a Marja Taqlid (source of emulation) is forbidden to ignore a Marja’s order. But Ahmadinejad argued that what the leader said was not an order but “advice.” 

What is behind Ahmadinejad’s move and how may it affect the outcome of the election?

The conservatives’ analysis is that Ahmadinejad has come to destroy them, not moderates or reformists, because conservatives abandoned him during his second term. He wants to prove that conservatives need him and have no chance against the moderates/reformists now that they have turned their back on him. 

They may have a point. Ahmadinejad will not be able to attract votes from supporters of the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, because they hate Ahmadinejad and backed his rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in the 2009 election. In that election, Ahmadinejad won a disputed victory that provoked massive street protests that the government violently suppressed. Therefore, Ahmadinejad will attract the votes that would otherwise go to the candidate of conservative groups, including the cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, who has suddenly emerged in the political space of Iran as a possible president or successor to Khamenei. In such an eventuality, conservatives will likely be defeated by moderates/reformists, represented by Rouhani.  

Ahmadinejad’s confidant, Hamid Baghaei, who was arrested on corruption charges in 2015, has also filed to run for president. After registering, Ahmadinejad said that his candidacy is “for supporting my brother Baghaei.” Observers in Iran believe that Baghaei is just a cover for Ahmadinejad’s move. 

Observers are divided over whether Ahmadinejad will be qualified by the ultra-conservative Guardian Council, tasked with vetting the candidates, although there is a consensus that Baghaei will be disqualified. 

Those who maintain that Ahmadinejad will be disqualified argue that one of the main conditions for qualification of a candidate is his “commitment, in practical terms, to follow the vali’e faqih [supreme leader].” Ahmadinejad, according to this group, has clearly violated this condition by ignoring Khamenei’s advice. The former president will be qualified, they believe, only if the Supreme Leader tells the council to do so. 

An opposing group maintains that it would be very costly both to the Council and Khamenei if Ahmadinejad were to be disqualified. They argue that the Guardian Council has already approved him twice, and not long ago (last in 2009), and that Khamenei vehemently supported him during the 2009 uprisings when he said that Ahmadinejad’s vision was close to his and that Ahmadinejad’s victory was “divine.” Therefore, they argue, Ahmadinejad’s disqualification would not only call the judgment of the Council into question, but, even worse, that of the leader.

They have a more interesting argument. They say that Ahmadinejad’s participation in the election would dramatically increase turn-out, as his approval will mobilize those who are for and those who are against him. As things now stand, the climate in Iran is unusually quiet, unlike in previous elections. Khamenei’s first and foremost goal with respect to elections is to ensure a high turn-out. That gives the system legitimacy on the international stage which is especially important now that an unpredictable saber rattler resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Khamenei repeatedly has said, “Even those who are not supporters of the regime, vote for the sake of the country.”

Supporters of allowing Ahmadinejad to run also argue that this would be a display of democracy even though the deep state knows that he would not win. 

Three scenarios are possible:

If Ahmadinejad is approved, he may negotiate with the leaders of the Principlist (conservative) camp to allow him to play some future role in Iranian politics. Should they come to an agreement, which is unlikely, he will withdraw. Otherwise he will run and likely will lose to Rouhani in a run-off. In either case the advantage of this scenario for Ahmadinejad is that he would be able to overcome the obstacles for his return and demonstrate his continued relevance as a political force. 

The second but less likely scenario is that Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, Ahmadinejad’s right-hand during his presidency, enters the race. According to a notable analyst, Saiid Hajjarian, Samareh is the only person among the members of Ahmadinejad’s inner circle who has a chance of being qualified. After attracting the attention of the nation, Ahmadinejad may withdraw but endorse and then actively support Samareh. 

In the third scenario, if Ahmadinejad is disapproved, according to some observers in Iran, he will have restored his populist social base and acquired more popularity by clearly going against not only Khamenei but also the deep state. In that case, he would appear as an alternative to the whole system, as Boris Yeltsin did in the Soviet Union, argues Saiid Laylaz, a renowned political analyst and economist in Iran. When Yeltsin rebelled against the Politburo of the Communist Party, that led to his rise in popularity as an anti-establishment figure and his eventual election as the first president of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “I repeat … Ahmadinejad is capable of doing that” says Laylaz. 

Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahisaless