Over the course of Iran's recent roller-coaster-ride of a presidential election and the subsequent surprised analysis of the outcome, one theme has been clear: this election was intended to mark the end of an era, to close the door on an eight-year interval dominated by one man, the infamous incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During his two terms in office, Ahmadinejad managed to outrage the world, erode Iran's economic and political stability, and emerge as a man reviled and ridiculed abroad as well as at home, where even his initial allies within the establishment have now shunned him.
As a result, the just-concluded campaign to succeed him was characterized by an almost palpable determination to repudiate Ahmadinejad, and the winner— moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani, who has been a vocal Ahmadinejad critic— has made clear that his foremost agenda will be to put as much distance as possible between his policies and those of his predecessor.
However, while Iran and the world are understandably eager to consign Ahmadinejad to the dustbin of history, his legacy is in fact more complex than his summary vilification throughout the campaign might suggest. And whatever his next act may be, it is likely that the influence of the audacious and unpredictable Ahmadinejad will continue to reverberate within the Islamic Republic and its relationship with the world.
Ahmadinejad burst onto the scene in 2005, with an improbable ascent from provincial bureaucrat to municipal management to Iran’s second-highest position. His name was little known even within Iran, and his scruffy persona and unpolished rhetoric prompted widespread predictions within Iran and among outside experts of his irrelevance and subservience.
Like many other assumptions regarding Iranian politics, the notion that Ahmadinejad would prove a pliant errand boy for Iran’s hard-liners proved spectacularly misguided. Throughout his two terms in office, Ahmadinejad repeatedly transcended these expectations as well as the presidency’s limited constitutional authorities. He inserted himself and asserted himself on every policy issue that mattered, typically in a fashion that augmented his own authority but degraded Iran’s real interests as judged by any imaginable standard. Along the way, he gutted Iran’s economic and diplomatic capabilities, polarized the limited political space that remained, and left the country’s reputation in shambles, more isolated today than at any time since the revolution.
In all this, Ahmadinejad was aided and abetted by the initially boundless support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is Iran’s supreme leader and its ultimate authority, as well as by a system that mistrusted its mercurial chief executive but is accustomed to implementing Khamenei’s mandates. For six years, as Ahmadinejad wreaked havoc with an epic flow of oil revenues and repeatedly, seemingly gleefully, affronted the international community, the president seemed to have a far freer rein than any of his predecessors. Until one day he did not; yet another power grab went awry, and he was publicly rebuked by Khamenei and almost instantaneously spurned by all but a few remaining supporters within the establishment.
His sudden turn as persona-non-grata within the Islamic Republic facilitated the effortless deployment of Ahmadinejad as the chief scapegoat for Iran’s profound dilemmas throughout the course of the subsequent two years and most intensely during the recent campaign. During the run-up to the election and the campaign that just finished, Ahmadinejad managed to loom large on Iran's internal stage even as his influence had clearly receded, with each of his would-be successors seeking to define themselves in contradistinction to the infamous incumbent.
However, the simple truth is that while the president has exacerbated Iran’s existing troubles, Ahmadinejad is not the sole author of the country’s economic chaos and mismanagement, nor the real cause of its creeping pariah status. All of Ahmadinejad’s actual misdeeds were committed with the establishment’s full foreknowledge and often their concerted support, and on some of Iran’s most intractable issues, he can be credited with forcing through several serious efforts at mitigation, such as the subsidy reform program.
This corrective extends to the nuclear issue, where the casual attribution of Iran’s nuclear defiance to Ahmadinejad is actually quite inaccurate. The president became personally identified with the theocracy’s nuclear ambitions, but in fact most conventional analysis suggests that he was the one pushing for a 2009 fuel-swap deal that Tehran first agreed to and subsequently rejected. Ahmadinejad continued to advocate publicly for a suspension of Iran’s higher-level enrichment activities in exchange for Western-supplied fuel rods for its medical research reactor. The notion that it was the president, rather than the Supreme Leader, who has dictated the dodge-and-feint approach on the nuclear issue at talks with the international community flouts three-and-a-half decades of experience with decision-making in the Islamic Republic.
None of this is intended to rehabilitate the justifiably tattered reputation of a demagogue, or to downplay the significance of either the Rouhani electoral victory or the opportunity that I and others have argued now lays before Washington on the nuclear issue. However, understanding what has created the mess that Iran finds itself in will be essential to anyone who hopes to help devise a way out. And setting clear expectations for what is achievable and whose agency is required is equally important, if only to avoiding the fierce whiplash of public expectations. Once Ahmadinejad’s term formally concludes in August, the heady hopes for a bright new future sparked by the election will quickly collide with the Islamic Republic’s obdurate ideological and institutional constraints and its debilitating factional competition.
The international community will have to adjust as well. The current president has served as a most convenient bogeyman for Washington and its allies, whose coherence on robust economic pressure against Iran would not exist without Ahmadinejad’s reprehensible anti-Semitism and his dubious and violent reelection. In his absence, the international commitment to the most stringent implementation of the severe financial restrictions on Iran is likely to wane, as Iran proffers new trade and investment opportunities and public appetite erodes for punitive measures against a country that appears to be rehabilitating itself. This will only stiffen the spine of some in Washington and around the world to maintain a hard line, as will the longstanding mistrust of putative Iranian moderates. Rouhani’s room for maneuver may be limited at the outset, and over the forthcoming months, expect a new round of escalatory rhetoric about the ticking of the nuclear clock and the need for urgent action on Iran.
What then for Ahmadinejad? One of the most interesting aspects of Iran's intense election season has been the relative restraint of the publicity-seeking president. Only a few months ago, Ahmadinejad was indulging in his trademark incitement, parading videos of purported bribe-seeking by a scion of the revolutionary establishment on the floor of the parliament. Even as the campaign got underway, he seemed intent on defending his legacy and extending his influence, disdaining Iran’s arcane electoral protocol by accompanying his favored candidate to register to run to succeed him. And yet since the slate of candidates was announced – without his favored ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei amongst them – Ahmadinejad has seemed to shrink into the scenery. While he apparently worked repeatedly behind the scenes to reverse Mashaei’s exclusion, Ahmadinejad has forgone the public antics that made his career and many expected would define his departure from office.
Perhaps his newfound decorum is a response to the legal complaints that have already been levied against him as well as Mashaei or to the inquiry into missing billions in oil revenues from his tenure. Or perhaps Ahmadinejad has uncharacteristically opted to go out without a fight. Still, given his history, his youth (relative to the standards of Iran’s gerontocracy), and his personal predilection for the spotlight, it seems unlikely he will live out his post-presidential life in quiet contemplation.
This week, one of Ahmadinejad's key allies, government spokesman Gholamhussain Elham, came under fire and ridicule for suggesting that the president will return with the Hidden Imam, a reference to a central and profoundly sacred concept of Shi'a theology. The statement provoked howls of outrage from the very religious leadership who have resented Ahmadinejad’s messianic tendencies from the start of his tenure, and was quickly restated.
However, it was intended a political message rather than a theological one. Through the initially fulsome support of the regime’s insiders and a larger dose of political savvy than he is often credited with, Ahmadinejad has amassed a constituency among Iranians fed up with the blatant corruption and hypocrisy of the political establishment. Just as the frustration over the failures of former President Mohammad Khatami receded with time and have enabled the once discredited reformist to play the role of senior statesman, Ahmadinejad may be looking toward the future and counting on a comeback opportunity. Now, in his final weeks in office, the proposition sounds absurd, but it should not be discounted. No one ever went broke betting against the Islamic Republic’s capacity for unpredictability.