Iran's president leaves trail of guesses on future
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Iran's president has no trouble making himself heard: rumbling through the U.N.'s annual world gathering this week with comments bashing homosexuality, describing Israel as a doomed misfit in the Middle East and predicting a rising tide against U.S. "bullying."
On one point, however, he is mum -- his plans after elections next June that will close out his second and final term.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has so far dodged questions about possible post-presidential roles with cryptic replies or inscrutable silence. Yet this much is clear: Despite his bravado at the U.N. and other international forums, he heads into the last months of his presidency politically wounded at home from skirmishes with Iran's ruling system.
His departure as president also could lead to a more toned-down approach from Iran in general over its nuclear program and possible deal-making with the West, analysts say.
Iran's theocracy directs all key policies -- including the pace of nuclear development and negotiations with the West -- leaving the president, in theory, to shepherd domestic affairs and other issues. In reality, however, Ahmadinejad has reshaped the office into an international soapbox with messages that may or may not be sanctioned from the top.
Iran's ruling clerics have grown weary of Ahmadinejad's showboating style and his attempts at extending the powers of his office. This will likely mean the Islamic establishment will green-light only trusted and predictable insiders to run as his successor.
It also could free up Iran's outreach. A united front between the ruling system and the presidency could bring more confidence in pursuing new proposals, such as Ahmadinejad's mention of possible direct talks with Washington.
"It's too late for Ahmadinejad to be carrying such a policy message" because of his politically damaged aura, said prominent Tehran-based political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand. "The Americans may buy it if it comes from somebody else."
This leaves Ahmadinejad as mostly a placeholder until elections. The real interest is shifting to what he will do next.
"Don't expect Ahmadinejad to fade away," said Scott Lucas, an Iranian affairs expert at Britain's Birmingham University. "He will try to maintain some kind of political visibility. It's just unclear exactly what shape it will take."
Speculation on Ahmadinejad's future has veered in several directions. Some believe he will keep a nucleus of political allies as a brain trust with an eye toward possibly seeking a place on the ballot in 2017. Others see him shifting into a kind of populist champion, possibly leading a foundation focusing on his political base among the poor.
In one of his only hints about his plans, Ahmadinejad told a German newspaper in June that he could "return to scientific work" at a university while also keeping his fingers in politics. He holds a doctorate in civil engineering and traffic planning from Tehran's University of Science and Technology.
On Monday in New York, he also tossed out the prospect that he could return as part of Iran's delegation to the U.N. General Assembly.
And in early September, he set Iranian social media sites buzzing after an apparent joke in response to a reporter's question noting that term limits make this his last year in office.
"How do you know it will be the final year?" a grinning Ahmadinejad said. It set off rumors he would try to seek some way to stay in power, even though he clarified that the remark was a reference to the longevity of Iran's Islamic system.
Suzanne Maloney, who studies Iran at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said it's very unlikely that the 55-year-old Ahmadinejad would be content with a "comfortable perch at a think tank" like his predecessor, reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
"I would anticipate that he would want to be far more active," she said, "that his age and ambitions would predispose him toward some kind of entrepreneurial activity with a political bent and that -- in part because of his difficulties among the bulk of the current political establishment -- he will seek to play to an audience beyond Iran."
She added: "It will be entertaining."
Ahmadinejad's confrontations with Iran's establishment have already produced high-grade political theater.
The feud began last year with Ahmadinejad's drive to give the presidency more sway over key policies such as intelligence and foreign affairs. In a stunning rebuff to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a miffed Ahmadinejad boycotted Cabinet meetings for more than a week to protest Khamenei's choice for intelligence minister.
The payback was swift by loyalists to Khamenei, who felt stung after standing by Ahmadinejad during the chaos and riots following his disputed re-election in 2009.
Dozens of Ahmadinejad's political allies were arrested or driven into the political wilderness. Ahmadinejad's top aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei -- presumably being groomed for his own presidency bid -- was declared part of a "deviant current" and effectively blackballed from higher office.
In March, Ahmadinejad was dragged before parliament to face unprecedented questioning over his policies and snubs to Khamenei, whose most fervent supporters believe he is answerable only to God.
"Ahmadinejad knows that his political clout has been pretty much neutralized after his challenges to Khamenei," said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. "He is now making his strategy for after he leaves office. He's something of a hero of the lower classes. He may try to capitalize on that."
His government has funneled handouts and development projects to Iran's struggling rural areas and provincial cities, where slowdowns in the sanctions-hit economy have pushed unemployment well above the estimated 25 percent national average and the ruling clerics are often viewed as aloof and out of touch. This could provide the base for another run for the presidency or parliament, said Nafisi.
"Ahmadinejad has a political future, but that future is electoral," he said. "There is very little chance that Khamenei will appoint him to some powerful organization or body. Too much has happened between them."
Meanwhile, the ruling system will soon begin weighing the options for Ahmadinejad's successor.
They hold all the cards, vetting all candidates for the presidency and parliament. The message these days is clear: Reformists, liberals and any others likely to challenge the ruling system are out.
Perceived front-runners at the moment include Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and ex-Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was given a prominent role at the Tehran-hosted Nonaligned Movement summit in August, raising his profile as a potential old guard standby.
All would likely strike a milder tone on the world stage than Ahmadinejad.
Of the five presidents since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, only two have moved on to prominent roles after leaving office: Khamenei and Rafsanjani, who also is a foe of Ahmadinejad dating back to the 2005 presidential election race.
"Ahmadinejad is now far away from the axis of power," said the analyst Bavand. "He is now a figure with lots to say but no real clout."
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