As former Iranian vice-president goes to jail, the ‘Ahmadinejadis’ are down but not out
The video released by state media of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei defying an Iranian court by tearing off his shirt was pure theatre but leaves Iranians wondering if they have seen the final act in a long drama.
The former vice-president was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for actions against national security, propaganda against the government and insulting the judiciary. He reportedly faces other charges, too.
A long prison spell could be the political end for a man who was once first vice-president and then former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff (2009-13). Mashaei became the bete noire of conservative clerics, who openly warned he led a “deviant current.”
Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, once declared himself “more than 90% certain he [Ahmadinejad] has been put under a spell… I do not know if it is hypnotism… or relations with yogis but something is wrong.”
Mashaei is related to Ahmadinejad through their children’s marriage. The pair appear to have met when Mashaei was an intelligence officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Kurdistan in the 1980-88 Iraq war and Ahmadinejad was a volunteer engineer in the Basij paramilitaries.
Once Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, many wrong-footed analysts portrayed him as a creature of the IRGC but discrete talk in Tehran was of his religious beliefs, particularly of his relationship with the 12th Imam, or Mahdi.
Ahmadinejad had an affinity, rooted in his blacksmith father’s Quran classes, with the simple religious practices of millions of Iranians and a distrust of the learned ayatollahs in Qom. Mashaei developed a stress on Iranian nationalism even at the expense of Islam.
While Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backed Ahmadinejad in the disputed 2009 presidential election, he refused to accept Mashaei as first vice-president. Ahmadinejad instead made Mashaei chief of staff and prompted a week-long stand-off while resisting a directive from Khamenei designating the next intelligence minister.
In the 2013 presidential election, Ahmadinejad was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term and the watchdog Guardian Council disallowed Mashaei. Ahead of the 2017 election, for which Ahmadinejad was eligible, Khamenei publicly advised a “certain person” not to do a “certain thing” (stand).
Down but far from out, the “Ahmadinejadis,” as they are known, have remained active with hundreds of websites and social-media accounts pedalling a mix of millennialism and conspiracy theories. Their allegations of corruption in high places often centre on the Larijani brothers, Ali, the parliamentary speaker and Sadegh, the judiciary chief.
Another target is the IRGC intelligence arm, headed by Hossein Taeb. Hamid Baghaei, an Ahmadinejad ally who was earlier this year sentenced to 15 years in prison for embezzlement, claimed at his trial that he had been framed by IRGC officials. After Mashaei’s sentence, Ahmadinejad released a video claiming Taeb was “psychologically unbalanced” and “fabricates cases.”
Opinions differ as to how much Mashaei and Ahmadinejad are a serious problem for Iran’s establishment. “Mashaei wasn’t particularly threatening,” said Farideh Farhi, adjunct professor of political science at the University of Hawaii. “This is why he wasn’t arrested for years. He just needed to be stopped for a while since his latest utterances might have given others the impression that everyone could insult the authorities with impunity.”
Farhi argues that a judicial move against Ahmadinejad is unlikely, given the existing “propaganda cost” of the media ban against another former president, reformist Mohammad Khatami. “Knowing this, Ahmadinejad will continue to push the limits and will not face retribution so long as he cannot develop some sort of organised support,” she said.
True, the official distaste for effective political parties as breeding grounds for “factionalism” precludes an Ahmadinejad version of the reformists’ Mosharekat-e Iran-e Islami (“Participation Front”). The front is barely functioning since its 2010 suspension but populism based on social media, as the recent history of the United States illustrates, is unpredictable.
Ahmadinejad is fondly remembered by many Iranians and the cash handouts introduced by his government have proved too popular for Iranian President Hassan Rohani and parliament simply to remove. Sadegh Larijani could have another reason to counter
Ahmadinejad. The judiciary chief is considered one of three main candidates in the looming succession to Khamenei, 79. In an interview last year with Radio Farda, Ahmadinejad suggested the judiciary lacked “systematic supervision” with power concentrated in its chief, whom he accused of complicity in the death of a blogger. It was an apparent reference to Sattar Beheshti, 35, who died in Evin prison in 2012.
Farhi said Larijani has “not been a particularly effective public defender” of the judiciary “or the Islamic Republic in general” and that his wider record may already have alienated the Experts Assembly, the body that chooses the leader. But Ahmadinejad’s goading seems set to continue despite Mashaei’s political demise. Given their bitter animosity and his own ambitions, Larijani may seize any chance to shut up Ahmadinejad as well.