Ahmadinejad tweets but is no Donald Trump

If there is to be a return to populism and nationalism in Iran, it is likely to come from within the establishment. Unlike other presidents, Ahmadi­nejad was a “simple man of God” rather than a cleric.

2017/04/02 Issue: 100 Page: 17

The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth

Four years after standing down as Iran’s presi­dent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had only to join Twitter and write US President Donald Trump to attract interna­tional headlines. Could there be strange parallels between the two?

Certainly, both are outsiders who challenged an establishment: In 2005, Ahmadinejad targeted his opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as boldly as Trump targeted Hillary Clinton last year. Both play on emotions, especially national pride, and are clever with slogans. Ahmadinejad promised to “put the oil money on the sofreh”, referring to the dining mat used by poorer Iranians, while Trump wants to “make America great again”.

However, the comparison is limited. While the religious right in general backed Trump because of his views on issues such as abortion, the relationship between religion and politics in Iran is more interwoven. This makes Iranian populism complex.

Historically, Shiism functioned in a quasi-democratic way, with muqallids choosing which mujtahid to follow. Ayatollahs rose not just because of their achievements in jurisprudence but because of the followers they attracted. While the traditional pattern persists — Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani is perhaps the cleric today with most followers — things changed significantly with the Islamic Republic.

After the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept of vilayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist) made the leading jurisprudent the head of state.

After Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeded him in 1989, a gap grew between politicised clerics such as Khamenei, who worked to extend state influence over religious associations, and more tradition­ally minded clerics, many of whom rejected vilayat-e faqih. Khamenei’s efforts to attract followers as a mujtahid were less than successful.

Critics of vilayat-e faqih have consistently argued that clerics controlling the state undermines religion. In 1979, Ezzatollah Sahabi, a member of the body elected to ratify a new constitu­tion, said subjecting clerics to the same type of criticism as politi­cians would spell “the beginning of the decline of Islam”.

Even while complaining about “the mullahs”, Iranians remained religious. As for Ahmadinejad, his brand of populism fed on religious practices and symbols frowned on by clerics, such as Islamic folklore he learned from his father’s Quran classes.

Unlike other presidents — Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami before him, Hassan Rohani after him — Ahmadinejad was a “simple man of God” rather than a cleric. He took advantage of the widening gap between the country’s political class and traditional clergy, which was undermined by the Islamic Republic. Ahmadine­jad spoke not just to material needs of poorer Iranians, but to their religious identity.

Initially, Khamenei supported Ahmadinejad, whose calls to a return of revolution-era values he thought signalled the end of the reformist era. However, like many populists, Ahmadinejad was so enamoured with his own prowess that he overstepped the mark, especially by returning for a second term after the disputed 2009 election.

By 2011, Ahmadinejad clashed openly with Khamenei. First vice-president Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei was routinely accused by principlists of leading a “deviant current”. In Qom, Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah-Yazdi said he was “more than 90% certain that he [Ahmadinejad] has been put under a spell… I do not know if it is hypnotism or relations with yogis.”

The crisis reached its peak when Ahmadinejad refused a directive from Khamenei designating the next intelligence minister and subsequently refused to show up to work for a week. Ahmadinejad threatened to publish dossiers on corruption and, in 2013, played a tape in parliament purportedly impli­cating a brother of parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani.

The establishment proved formidable, however. With Ahmadinejad ineligible for a third successive term as presi­dent, the watchdog Guardian Council barred Mashaei from the 2013 election. Last year, conserv­atives speculated that Ahmadinejad might run again, but in September, Khamenei publicly advised a “certain person” not to do a “certain thing”.

The reasons are straightfor­ward. Ahmadinejad not only alienated other countries and stoked animosity between the Shias and Sunnis, he ran up a public debt and incurred bad loans that are now crippling the banking and insurance sectors. If there is to be a return to pop­ulism and nationalism in Iran, it is likely to come from within the establishment.

Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.

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