This week a photo of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared on social media in front of the ruins of Persepolis. Ahmadinejad’s supporters quickly spread the photograph on Facebook and Twitter with election-like endorsements, even though his candidacy for another term as president has been tacitly barred by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The choice of a photo in front of Persepolis is interesting as the historical site has become a symbol of pre-revolutionary Iranian heritage and a site for protests by reformist youth. Meanwhile the recent fire and collapse of Tehran’s Plasco building has fomented a backlash on Iranian social media against the most viable conservative candidate, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.
Some criticism has mounted against the Iranian political system in general in light of the disaster. Human rights attorney Shadi Sadr held the Mostazafan (oppressed) Foundation of the Islamic Revolution, which owned the building, directly responsible for the disaster due to the ill fate of the building’s original owner, a prominent Iranian Jewish businessman, who was executed after the revolution. However, most commentators have avoided criticism of the government at large and instead have called for the resignation of Ghalibaf.
Prior to the fire, opinions of the mayor were favorable according to a recent poll conducted by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies and the University of Tehran. It is unclear whether outrage on social media will translate into serious damage to his anticipated bid in presidential elections scheduled for May 19. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani had been favored to win but that was before a series of harsh steps by the Trump administration, banning U.S. visas for Iranians and nationals of six other Muslim-majority countries and imposing new sanctions tied to an Iranian missile test.
Iranian hardliners have pursued an intense but conciliatory public relations campaign in response to post-Plasco criticism. According to biographer Andrew Cooper, after the Rex Cinema fire that killed approximately 370 people in 1978, the Shah “blundered badly when he allowed his mother’s annual garden party to mark National Uprising Day to proceed.” This lavish event became a symbol of the Shah’s detachment from the people.
Perhaps learning from history, Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement published by the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency after the Plasco disaster directed the focus to assisting firefighters and their families. Tehran has attempted to distance the deaths of firefighters from domestic issues and to frame the tragedy within the context of regional events. It has done this by staging joint marches for fallen Fatemiyoun soldiers in Syria and firefighters. Meanwhile Khamenei posted photos earlier this week on his Twitter account of him visiting the graves of the late Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, the firefighters, and the fallen from Syria.
Have the Eslah-talaban (reformists) won a small victory from the tragedy if in fact Ghalibaf is no longer a viable presidential rival to Rouhani? Perhaps. But it may be an equal win for certain hardliners who were enemies of Rafsanjani, since the building collapse has taken over a news cycle that increasingly praised him at the expense of his hardliner critics.
With the sudden death of Rafsanjani and the collapse of the Plasco building, there may be newfound sympathy for Rouhani. But the increasing tension between the U.S. and Iran could mitigate any advantage for reformists and present an opportunity for Ahmadinejad himself or a candidate molded in his image who is ready to respond to President Trump’s tough talk. If nuclear-related U.S. sanctions against Iran are reinstated and the Iran nuclear deal falls apart, then hardliners will be presented with a perfect scapegoat just in time for the May election. Even if Rouhani wins, he may be forced to increasingly endorse hardline sentiments in response to Trump’s rhetoric and actions.
Adam Weinstein is a veteran of the Marine Corps where he served in Afghanistan. He is a policy intern at the National Iranian American Council and has contributed to Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Newsweek, and regularly writes for the London School of Economics Middle East Centre blog.